Sunday

5th Feb 2023

EU-Morroco fish deal a 'failure' for all concerned

  • Fishing boats in the Moroccan port of Essaouira (Photo: Ross Thomson)

A controversial fisheries partnership agreement between the EU and Morocco has provided very poor returns to the European tax payer, and failed to bring about tangible benefits in the north African country, according to a report sponsored by the European Commission.

The study by consultants Oceanic Développement also underlines the over-exploited status of Morocco's fish stocks at a time when the merits of renewing the partnership agreement have caused a bitter division between EU member states, and the bloc reassesses its wider relationship with the southern Mediterranean region.

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Human rights campaigners have weighed in against the controversial four-year agreement which expired in February 2011 but was prolonged for one year, arguing that it legitimises Rabat's annexation of the disputed Western Sahara region to the south of the country.

EU fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki has made it clear that a longer-term renewal of the agreement which sees the EU hand Morocco an annual €36 million must display benefits to the inhabitants of the contested region, a Spanish colony until 1975.

But the restricted-access commission report, which NGOs have fought to be made public, says neither side has gained much from the deal.

"Each euro spent by the EU only generated 83 cents turnover and 65 cents direct and indirect value added accruing to the EU," says the report, seen by this website. "These are the lowest cost-benefit ratios of support to the European fleet across all ongoing bilateral agreements."

Benefits to Moroccan citizens appear to have been little better, with just 170 jobs created and the "few direct interactions" between EU boats and the national fishing industry failing to stimulate the development of the country's fishing sector.

The report is also clear that the roughly 100 EU boats which fish in Moroccan waters are not helping to exploit surplus stocks but instead adding to overfishing pressures, a practice that is supposedly banned under UN rules.

"The data available on the status of stocks in the EEZ [exclusive economic zone] of Morocco indicate that most of the stocks are fully exploited or over-exploited," states the report.

Greenpeace is one NGO that has been pressing for public access to the commission report and others like it. "The agreement is problematic in a number of different ways: environmental, social and wasteful to the EU taxpayer," said fisheries activist Saskia Richartz.

As a result, a handful of EU member states (Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany and the UK) voted against the one-year extension at an acrimonious meeting of EU fisheries ministers in Brussels in February. The group found themselves on the losing side however, outvoted by a majority led by Spain and France.

Sources suggest the issue has produced lively debate inside the college of EU commissioners as well, with Portuguese commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and Spanish vice-president Joaquin Almunia reported to have weighed in with typically national views.

Spanish and Portuguese fishermen benefit most from the EU's access agreement to Moroccan waters, where the real prize is the bountiful waters off the disputed Western Sahara region.

Human rights organisations and MEPs such as Green euro-deputy Isabella Lovin argue any extension of the agreement would further legitimise Morocco's annexation of the disputed zone of half a million people, fought over and ultimately taken under Rabat's complete control after Spain rapidly pulled out in 1975.

The region's independence group, the Polisario Front, condemned the EU member state decision in February to extend the fishing agreement by one year, with the movement's secretary general Mohamed Abdelaziz branding the ministers as "seemingly oblivious to the democratic fervour sweeping across the Middle East and the Maghreb."

Lawyers in the European Parliament's legal services have said they also suspect the fishing agreement breaches international law by ignoring the rights of the Saharawi people to control their natural resources. MEPs are set to vote on the one-year extension in the coming weeks.

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