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13th Dec 2019

Liberal leader blocks public debate on EU-Morocco deal

The leader of the liberal Alde group, Guy Verhofstadt, has denied the public a debate on a controversial trade deal between the EU and Morocco, EUobserver has learned.

The decision means the European Parliament at the Strasbourg plenary will not disclose the issue to the wider public following a scandal that saw the agreement's lead MEP, French liberal Patricia Lalonde, resign from her post as rapporteur.

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Lalonde's resignation came on the back of an investigation into Morocco lobbying by EUobserver and the subsequent launch of an internal parliament probe into possible conflicts of interest among several other MEPs implicated in the affair.

Verhofstadt, a former Belgian PM and a staunch federalist, has yet to respond to an emailed question on the issue and his office did not pick up phone calls from this website.

His move was confirmed by separate internal sources at the European Parliament.

It leaves questions unanswered on the back-room lobbying scandal, as well as European Court of Justice rulings which scrapped similar EU-Morocco trade deals in the past.

The plenary agenda is set by the secretary generals of the various political groups, which had, on Wednesday (9 January), agreed to have the Morocco debate the following Monday in Strasbourg.

But on Thursday (10 January), Verhofstadt, at the conference of presidents, where the leaders of the parliament's political groups meet, motioned to have it removed from the plenary agenda.

EUobserver understands he received the backing of the centre-right EPP, the conservative ECR, and some other far-right factions.

It means MEPs at the Strasbourg plenary will now vote on the deal on Wednesday (16 January) without a broader discussion, unless the Greens manage to get it back on the agenda.

The Moroccan government has been using the issue of migration and security to push through its demands on the trade deals amid blowback from civil society groups and human rights defenders.

Lalonde last month stepped down from her role as rapporteur on the agricultural deal, known as the EU-Morocco Association Agreement.

She was replaced by Dutch liberal Marjiete Schaake, who will not be standing in the next EU elections.

The deal is controversial because it extends into the disputed Western Sahara, an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom.

The United Nations does not recognise the Western Sahara as part of Morocco, but the European Union has cut trade deals with Rabat to exploit the region's resources.

The latest iteration demands the European Commission first obtain the consent of the local population in the annexed area, which appears to be disputed.

Meanwhile, some 100 MEPs are demanding a resolution to have the latest deal referred back to the European Court of Justice.

"The plenary will also have to take a decision on that, before taking a decision on the trade agreement," said Swedish socialist MEP Jytte Guteland, who leads a parliament inter-group on the Western Sahara.

"We are voting on something that is obviously not respecting our own courts [ECJ]," she said.

Investigation

Exposed: How Morocco lobbies EU for its Western Sahara claim

The European parliament's lead negotiator on the Morocco trade deal, French liberal MEP Patricia Lalonde, is also on the EuroMedA Foundation board along with former Moroccan state ministers and a top ranking official in Morocco's ministry of agriculture.

Lead MEP on Morocco resigns as her report passes

MEPs ultimately adopted a controversial report on an EU trade deal with Morocco - despite the sudden resignation by French liberal Patricia Lalonde as the file's rapporteur only moments beforehand. Her departure follows an EUobserver investigation into lobbying by Morocco.

Opinion

On Morocco, will the EU ignore its own court?

If the European parliament votes in favour of the new Morocco agreement without knowing that it complies with the European Court of Justice judgement, how can it demand that other countries respect international law and their own courts?

Zahradil 'conflict of interest' probe may flounder

The European Parliament's internal body, designed to sanction MEPs for conflicts of interests, has failed to deliver any meaningful verdicts. Some are hoping a future proposal for a new independent ethics body will help hold MEPs accountable.

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