European Court of Justice dismisses Morocco`s claim to Western Sahara, throwing EU trade deal into doubt. The ruling on the bloc`s trade deals with Morocco means they do not apply to Western Sahara, which occupied territory is notable for its fish stocks, mineral extraction, agricultural exports and potential oil reserves.
Morocco’s relations with the European Union (EU) have suffered a potentially significant setback, after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that Western Sahara cannot be treated as a part of Morocco, meaning that no EU-Morocco trade deals can apply to the territory.
The December 21 court ruling was welcomed by Western Sahara’s liberation movement, the Polisario Front. Its representative to Europe, Mohamed Sidati, was in Luxembourg to receive the results of the ruling and said afterwards “The ruling confirms the long-established legal status of Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory, and upholds existing international law…We call on EU member states and institutions to now comply with the ruling and immediately cease all agreements, funding and projects reinforcing Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara.
Others also welcomed the ruling, including Bodil Valero, vice-chair of the European Parliament intergroup on Western Sahara. We welcome today`s ruling, which makes absolutely clear that Western Sahara is not a part of Moroccan territory and that no bilateral EU-Morocco agreements apply to this territory,” said Valero. “We expect to see immediate action from the [European] Commission and member states to bring this ruling into practice.”
A Sahrawi refugee prepares tea on July 8, 2016 at the refugee camp of Dakhla, 170km southeast of the Algerian city of Tindouf, in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. (Photo: FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images)
The court ruling was not a complete surprise. In mid-September Melchior Wathelet, an advocate general at the Court of Justice in Brussels, issued a statement in which he said “Western Sahara is not part of Moroccan territory and therefore … neither the EU-Morocco Association Agreement, nor the Liberalisation Agreement are applicable to it.” Advocates general provide independent legal opinions to judges at the Court of Justice. These opinions are advisory and non-binding but are often influential.
In response to the court ruling, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini and Morocco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Salaheddine Mezouar issued a joint statement in which they said they “took note” of the judgement and would “work together on any issue relating to its application.”
Just what that will involve remains to be seen, but the Moroccan government has reacted angrily to similar legal setbacks in the past. In December 2015, the European Court of Justice ruled that a four-year-old deal between the EU and Morocco covering trade in agricultural and fishery products (also known as the Liberalisation Agreement) should be scrapped because it included products from Western Sahara. In response, Morocco suspended cooperation with the EU for several months. It also fell out with the US over the issue of Western Sahara’s status in May 2016.
Bilateral trade between the EU and Morocco is worth €37bn a year and 63 per cent of Moroccan exports go to the EU. In addition, the EU is providing aid worth €728m-890m a year over the period 2014 to 2017. Morocco also sells fishing rights in its Atlantic waters to EU boats. If trade is to grow further in the future, Morocco will have to accept that any free trade deal will have to exclude Western Sahara – including the fruit and vegetables growing in and around Dakhla, grown by companies including Les Domaines Agricoles, which is part-owned by King Mohammed VI.
See EU Court of Justice press release
Download EU Court of Justice Grand Chamber appeal judgment C-104/16 P Council v. Front Polisario, 21 December 2016
View POLISARIO response at press conference
Download EU General Court decision T-512/12 Front Polisario v Council, 10 December 2015
Markus W. Gehring, “EU/Morocco relations and the Western Sahara: The ECJ and international law” EU Law Analysis
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Photo on front page: General view of the buildings of the Court of Justice of the European Communities. Source: eutopialaw.