The European Union’s highest court on Wednesday annulled the approval by the 27-nation bloc of agriculture and fisheries agreements that allow Morocco to export goods from Western Sahara.
The ruling could damage the EU’s relationship with Morocco, although the court said the effects of the 2019 agreements would be maintained for a certain period “to preserve the European Union’s foreign action and legal certainty over its international commitments.”
The EU is Morocco’s main trading partner and the largest foreign investor in the North African kingdom, according to the bloc.
The case was brought to court by the Polisario Front, the movement that seeks the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco. The movement challenged the decisions of the European Council, the body that acts on behalf of the EU member countries.
In its conclusions, the court determined that the Polisario Front was “internationally recognized as the representative of the people of Western Sahara” and that the EU did not ensure that it obtained the consent of the Saharawi people before sealing the agreements with Morocco.
In a joint statement, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, and the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nasser Bourita, said they will take measures “to ensure the legal framework that guarantees the continuation and stability of trade relations.”
Oubi Bachir, the Polisario representative to the EU, celebrated “a great victory for the desert cause” in a message posted on Twitter.
The European Union Court of Justice ruled in February 2018 that a fisheries agreement between the EU and Morocco could not include the waters of Western Sahara.
Morocco considers the vast and rich Western Sahara, rich in minerals, to be its “southern provinces” and rejects any action that it considers a threat to its territorial integrity. The state of the territory is one of the most sensitive issues in the North African kingdom.
Western Sahara, apple of contention between Rabat and Madrid
Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975 and fought against the independence movement of the Polisario Front. The UN negotiated a ceasefire in 1991 and established a peacekeeping mission to monitor it.
But the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice said that Western Sahara is not part of Morocco, so its waters are not part of the EU-Morocco agreement. In 2018, the court said that including those waters would contravene “certain rules of general international law,” such as the right to self-determination.
Morocco and Spain are the countries most affected by the ruling. With the fishing agreement alone, Morocco will lose around 52 million euros annually, for four years, in exchange for allowing 128 vessels from 11 European countries to fish in the waters off the west coast of Africa. Ninety-two of those ships are Spanish.
The ruling comes as the governments of Spain and Morocco have gathered contacts to try to solve the diplomatic crisis that caused the sudden arrival of some 10,000 migrants, including unaccompanied children, to the city of Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in North Africa.
The humanitarian crisis began when Morocco and Spain discussed Madrid’s decision to provide Covid-19 care to Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Western Sahara independence front, which angered authorities in Rabat.
Moroccan authorities, for their part, denied encouraging people to try to enter Ceuta without authorization.