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29th Feb 2024

EU seeks to extend Morocco fish deal, despite legal opinion

  • Around 120 European boats fish off the disputed coast, for an annual fee of around €40m (Photo: Ross Thomson)

The European Commission will not stop work on a new fishery agreement with Rabat - despite a top EU legal opinion that invalidates the existing deal.

A European Court of Justice (ECJ) advisor on Wednesday (10 January) said the trade agreement violates the rights of people from Western Sahara.

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  • Around 90,000 are thought to be living in the camps in Algeria (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

"By concluding that agreement, the EU was in breach of its obligation to respect the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination," advocate general Melchior Wathelet said in a non-binding opinion.

Morocco annexed the territory following colonial Spain's departure in 1975.

The ensuing conflict forced many of the indigenous Sahrawi to flee to neighbouring Algeria where they have been living in desolate refugee camps for some four decades.

While the war ended with a shaky ceasefire in 1991, some of the new generation are now threatening to take up arms. The forgotten crisis, food shortages, and a loss of faith in the Sahrawi leadership is leading the unrest.

Any hope for return to the annexed areas has also been frustrated by a French-led blockade at the United Nations Security Council.

Many others remain in the Moroccan-seized territory of the Western Sahara where they are treated as a second class citizens.

New fishery deal on horizon

But the EU commission appears unconcerned.

On Monday, it requested a mandate from the Council, representing member states, to launch a new fisheries deal with Morocco.

The current four-year pact expires in July. It allows 120 vessels from 11 EU countries to fish off the disputed coastline.

The 2013 deal costs the EU some €40 million annually in terms of access, support to the Moroccan fishery sector, and shipowner fees.

The commission will not comment until the final ruling of Luxembourg-based ECJ.

But a commission spokesman described its partnership with Morocco as rich and varied.

"It is our will not only to preserve the privileged relationship we share, but also to strengthen it," he said.

The political wing of the Saharwi, the Polisaro Front, has denounced the EU position.

Mohamed Sidati, Polisario's EU representative, said the commission's move to launch new trade talks ahead of any final judgment is a demonstration in deceit.

"Polisario view this as a clear and deliberate signal of the commission's empty commitments to support the UN-led political process," he said.

The Polisario in December 2016 had won a separate case against the EU commission at the EU court.

Judges at the time ruled that EU's association agreement with Morocco could not apply to the Western Sahara.

Wednesday's case on fisheries was lodged by the Western Sahara Campaign UK.

"It is time for the international community to enforce international law and allow the Saharawi, the indigenous people of Western Sahara, to decide for themselves who profits from the natural resources of their territory," said the British campaigners, in a statement.

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