Afrol: Fight over legality of EU fisheries in Western Sahara

Afrol News, 7 March 2006.

Published 07 March 2006

This week, the legal experts of the European Union (EU) are to present their conclusion on the legality of the fisheries deal between Morocco and the EU last year, which includes the waters of occupied Western Sahara. Protests by the exiled Sahrawi government, activists and Sweden, Denmark, Britain and Ireland had cast doubt on the legality. Moroccan ally France and Spain, which gains most on the deal, favour the treaty as it is.

In July last year, negotiators from the European Commission (EC) and Morocco finally agreed on the terms for a new four-year fisheries treaty, allowing EU vessels to resume fishing in the rich Atlantic waters of Morocco for the first time after 1999. The deal was smaller than the previous 1995-1999 treaty and excluded Morocco's Mediterranean waters. But nevertheless, 119 EU vessels - 95 of them Spanish - were allowed to return to Moroccan waters as of March 2006, promising relief for the troubled European fisheries industry.

Meanwhile, the March 2006 deadline has been reached but EU vessels still are unable to trawl Moroccan waters. The fisheries agreement has yet to be ratified in the European Parliament and in the EC, where it meets resistance from a growing number of members of the EU parliament (MEPs) and national governments.

When announced, the deal immediately caused protests from the exiled Polisario government of Western Sahara, whose territory has been occupied by Moroccan troops and settlers since 1975. The EU's chief negotiator had made it clear that Western Sahara's rich waters were considered part of the deal as they were "under Moroccan administration." This view runs against a legal ruling by the UN in 2002, which concludes that Morocco is not the administrative power of Western Sahara.

Polisario and pro-Sahrawi activists soon gained the support of the Swedish government, which publicly opposed the deal as contradicting international law because it opens for exploitation of the natural resources in an occupied territory. The Stockholm Foreign Ministry for the last half year has been lobbying in other EU capitals to gather enough votes against the deal in the EU parliament and in the EC to block ratification. A minority of sufficient countries or sufficiently big countries is enough to block the deal.

The Swedes have managed to rally for support in several leading EU countries. At recent meetings in the EU's fisheries commission, the representatives of Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland and the United Kingdom have voiced concern over "the legality" of the inclusion of Western Sahara in the deal. The Italian and Austrian governments are reported to be drifting towards opposition. Further, the anti-deal campaign finds support from individual politicians and MEPS from almost all EU member states, including Spanish MEP Raúl Romeva (Catalan Green Party).

But also the pro-agreement block has gained ground since the issue surfaced. France has vehemently defended the deal, not surprisingly, as Paris is Rabat's main political ally in the Western Sahara conflict. Spain, the ex-colonial power and often seen as the territory's legal administrative power, supports the deal but Madrid keeps a lower profile. After all, the government of José Luis Zapatero is seeking friendly ties with Morocco and is the main beneficiary of the fisheries deal.

Most EU parliamentarians and national governments silently support them for economic or strategic reasons - favours from Madrid and Paris will be expected in change when these countries see their economic interests threatened. Keeping record of favours given each other is the order of the day among the divided nations of the EU.

The pro-Moroccan block argues that both EC-Moroccan fisheries agreements in the 1990s had included Western Sahara. The negotiators from the EC still claim that the deal is within international law, as "the people of Western Sahara" also will have economic benefits from the treaty. Parts of the euro 144 million the EU is to pay Morocco is to be spent locally on the development of "the Moroccan fishery sector", thus favouring local fisheries communities along the coast, including in occupied Western Sahara.

The Swedish government does not accept this argument. Fisheries Minister Ann-Christin Nykvist told the national press that the EU funds to be spent locally would probably not benefit Sahrawis, who are mostly exiled or marginalised within the new Moroccan settler economy in the occupied territory. The fisheries sector in the Western Sahara towns of El Aiun and Dakhla is in the hands of Moroccan investors and labour is recruited among the many thousand settlers Rabat sent into the territory after 1975 to change its ethnic composition.

While Sweden leads the resistance to the EU-Moroccan fisheries agreement, neighbouring Denmark has led the diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the dispute splitting the EU. Danish Fisheries Minister Hans Christian Schmidt, while opposing the deal, avoided an uncertain vote in the EU parliament and the EC by contributing to have the agreement analysed again by the juridical services of the EC. Denmark had "demanded assurances from the EC on the ... legality of the accords with regard to international law," Minister Schmidt told the Copenhagen parliament last month.

The EC's legal offices are expected to hand down their judgement on the legality of the treaty on Thursday this week. Most European observers expect the legal experts to approve of the deal, on condition that funds are directed to the territory's population. Given the differences over who is the legal population of the territory, however, the opposition to the treaty may continue its efforts to block the deal at the EU parliament or the EC.

If the legal experts deem the treaty illegal, it will not be ratified as it is, but an amendment must be negotiated. The EU thus will have to look to Washington on how to define its economic ties with Rabat. The US, which is also a major ally of Morocco, in 2004 signed a free trade agreement with the Kingdom that clearly stipulated that the territory of Western Sahara was not included in the treaty. According to US Congress members Joseph Pitts and Donald Payne, the EU should not find it difficult to define equal limits. 

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