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26th Oct 2021

EU may face billions in damages over axed Morocco trade deal

  • The EU now has two months to appeal the latest judgement against it by the EU general court in Luxembourg (Photo: Ross Thomson)
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The European Commission could face billions in damages for helping Morocco exploit the occupied Western Sahara, after the EU lost another court battle in Luxembourg.

"I think if I calculate the entire amount, it would be maybe more towards three or four [billion euros]," Gilles Devers told EUobserver on Thursday (30 September).

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Devers is a lawyer representing the Polisario Front, the political wing of the exiled Saharawi people of the Western Sahara.

His comment follows a judgement earlier this week by the General Court of the European Union in a case the Polisario brought against the Council, representing member states.

The EU's second-highest court on Wednesday annulled the 2019 EU agriculture and fishing agreements with Morocco, because they were obtained without the consent of the Saharawi.

Morocco annexed the Western Sahara in 1975, leading to clashes with the Saharawi over their right to self-determination.

Denied those rights, thousands continue to live scattered in desolate refugee camps in the Algerian desert amid a stalled ceasefire first brokered by the United Nations in 1991.

The Saharawi want independence, not autonomy as offered by Morocco. The EU-Rabat deals were thus disputed, posing bitter questions on their legality.

But Devers noted any decision to claim damages from the EU commission would first have to be taken by the Polisario leadership.

"That is for them to decide, but technically as a lawyer, I can bring [a case] against the commission for the damage caused," he said. "We could claim damage."

The latest judgement builds on a 2016 court ruling, also won by the Polisario.

It also follows a 2018 ruling whereby the court said a fisheries agreement between the EU and Morocco could not include the waters off Western Sahara.

The EU then tweaked the deals for the 2019 agreements, which were then immediately challenged by the Polisario.

On Wednesday, the court found the EU had failed to legitimately obtain the consent of the Saharawi before concluding the pacts as required in the 2016 judgement.

They also reinforced Polisario's international standing after their legitimacy had been questioned.

Devers said the blow against the EU was also major defeat for France, which has been a staunch defender of Morocco.

"France wanted these agreements so now what will France explain to its European counterparts?" he said.

EUobserver investigation

An EUobserver investigation in 2018 exposed Morocco's lobbying on French liberal and socialist MEPs, leading to the resignation of the European Parliament's rapporteur on the file.

Asked on Thursday if the European Commission would now engage the Polisario, it declined to respond.

It instead referred to a joint declaration between the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Morocco's minister of foreign affairs.

"We will take the necessary steps to ensure the legal framework that guarantees the continuation and stability of trade relations between the European Union and the Kingdom of Morocco," they said.

The EU has two months to appeal.

Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said it is unlikely the court would reach any other decision if the case was appealed.

'Friction with Rabat'

"At some point the council will have to face reality that this will mean increased friction with Rabat," he said, on Thursday.

Lovatt described the EU policy's on the Western Sahara as one viewed "exclusively through the prism of its relations with Rabat."

"I think now they are having to pay the consequences of that very short sighted approach to the issue," he said.

In 2019 alone, Morocco reportedly exported some €434m in fish, tomatoes and melons from Western Sahara to Europe. It now also stands to lose €52m annually in EU funds with the fate some 128 EU mostly Spanish fishing vessels also hanging in the balance.

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.

Rights watchdog warns MEPs on Morocco trade deal

MEPs are set to rubber-stamp a trade deal with Morocco to fish off the disputed coastline of the Western Sahara. Human Rights Watch have stepped in to point out the deal could be in breach of international law.

Socialist MEPs asked to support Vox nominee for Sakharov prize

The ultra-conservative candidate Jeanine Áñez from Bolivia was selected by the Spanish far-right Vox for the EU Sakharov prize on behalf of the conservative ECR. Socialist MEPs were instructed to support her, over a Western Sahara activist.

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