European judicial opinion could deal fresh blow to Brussels-Rabat ties

Back to square one?

Ties between Morocco and the European Union are likely to weaken after a legal adviser to the bloc’s top court said an EU-Moroccan fisheries agreement was invalid because it does not involve the people of the disputed Western Sahara.
In an opinion to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), Advocate- General Melchior Wathelet said the European Union was “in breach of its obligation to respect the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination and possible sover­eignty over natural resources there.”
“The Fisheries Agreement con­cluded between the European Un­ion and Morocco is invalid because it applies to the Western Sahara and its adjacent waters,” the court said in a statement.
Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975 and maintains it is an integral part of the kingdom. Polisario Front separatists began an armed conflict with Morocco for an independent state that lasted until the United Na­tions brokered a ceasefire in 1991.
Rabat has proposed a form of autonomy under Moroccan sover­eignty for the 266,000 sq. km terri­tory, which has fewer than 1 million inhabitants. The proposal was re­jected by the Polisario Front, which insists on the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination in a UN-monitored vote.
Morocco suspended ties with the European Union in early 2016 after the EU General Court annulled an agriculture deal on grounds it ille­gally applied to the disputed West­ern Sahara. The Polisario Front had challenged the 2012 trade deal. The European Union appealed the de­cision and the two parties are now pushing ahead with the pact.
The ECJ overruled in December 2015 the General Court’s decision, concluding that the Liberalisation Agreement does not apply to the territory of Western Sahara but the European Union’s top court follows the non-binding legal opinions of its advocates-general in most cases, which would have serious conse­quences on ties between the Euro­pean Union and Morocco.
A spokesman for EU foreign af­fairs chief Federica Mogherini said: “We are awaiting the final decision of the Court of Justice. Pending the final decision of the Court of Justice, we abstain from commenting on the case or its outcome.”
The legal opinion came a week af­ter the European Commission asked the European Union to negotiate with Morocco the renewal of the 2014 fisheries deal, which will ex­pire in July.
Tajeddine El Houssaini, professor of international relations at the Mo­hammed V University in Rabat, said Wathelet’s opinion has a more po­litical connotation than a legal one.
“Wathelet’s stance is in contra­diction with the international law which lies in the agreement signed between both parties,” said Hous­saini. “It is not surprising that such opinion came from Wathelet, who has already taken a similar stance on the EU-Morocco agriculture deal.”
In September 2016, Wathelet said the ECJ should set aside a judgment invalidating a farm trade accord be­tween the European Union and Mo­rocco. He stated that Western Sahara was not part of Morocco, so neither the 2000 EU-Morocco Association Agreement nor the 2012 EU-Morocco Agreement on liberalisation of trade in agricultural and fishery products applied to the territory.
“The timing chosen by Wathelet reflects the political aspect of his opinion, which does not represent in any way the EU’s stance,” said Houssaini.
A spike in tensions in the buffer zone near Guerguerat in Western Sahara prompted UN Secretary- General Antonio Guterres to call on the parties to exercise maximum restraint.
Morocco accused Polisario Front separatists of carrying out incur­sions in the buffer zone.
“Regular civilian and commercial traffic should not be obstructed and no action should be taken, which may constitute a change to the sta­tus quo of the buffer strip,” a UN statement said.
An incursion by the Polisario at Guerguerat last year prompted the United Nations to intervene to force both Morocco and the separatists to unconditionally withdraw all armed elements from the border strip.
The article was first published
in the Arab Weekly