The EU Commission puts the trade flow from Western Sahara into the Union at "just €7000" for the entire year of 2016. "Beggars belief", WSRW states.
EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström mentioned the odd figure in a letter sent to Bernd Lange, Chair of the European Parliament's Trade Committee [or download], earlier this month. Lange had previously requested the Commission to provide statistics on the EU's trade with Western Sahara.
The territory is treated by the UN as the last unresolved colonial question in Africa, and under partial illegal occupation by the EU's trading partner, Morocco.
While Commissioner Malmström puts the value of processed fish products from the occupied territory to the EU at €122 million for 2016, the remainder of products covered by the trade deal would amount to "just €7000".
"After years of nothing but vague wordings from the EU Commission on the matter of imports from occupied Western Sahara, this very precise number that is now being coughed up makes no sense whatsoever", says Davide Contini from Western Sahara Resource Watch. "It is obvious the Commission hasn't the faintest idea about the trade volume."
Interestingly, the Trade Commissioner's statement is contradicted by the EU's Foreign Affairs Chief, Federica Mogherini. Replying to a question by an Italian Euro-Parliamentarian from the largest political group in the European Parliament, the EPP, Mogherini stated in September that it is "difficult for the EU to accurately quantify from EU international trade databases the share of total trade actually coming from Western Sahara".
In 2012, WSRW published the first ever report on agricultural industry in Western Sahara, documenting how produce grown on the different sizeable plantations near the town of Dakhla made its way to EU supermarkets. Since the publication, the plantations have expanded in size, indicative of a profitable business undertaking.
"The 2012 EU-Morocco trade liberalisation deal covered essentially two sectors; fisheries and agricultural products. It is inexplicable that the Commission would claim that the total agricultural export from Western Sahara to the EU in 2016 did not exceed €7000", says Contini. "Unless if one takes into account that the EU outsourced responsibility by allowing importers to choose the trade scheme for declaring their purchases."
In her letter, Commissioner Malmström does admit that before the judgement of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) of 21 December 2016, imports from Western Sahara were overwhelmingly declared as being from Morocco rather than Western Sahara in order to obtain tariff preferences. As such, the Commissioner writes, the collected statistics don't reflect the real volume of trade. Between the lines, the Commission admits to years of tariff fraud on these imports and hence to a substantial loss in terms of EU budget revenue.
The landmark CJEU judgment clarified that since Western Sahara has a distinct and separate status from Morocco, no EU trade or association agreement can be applied to the territory, unless with the explicit consent of the people of Western Sahara.
But the EU is unwilling to stop importing from Western Sahara. And instead of respecting the Court's judgement and engaging with the Saharawis, the EU Commission is doing the opposite: it has turned to occupying power Morocco to discuss how Western Sahara can remain inside the geographical scope of the EU's trade deal with Morocco. The Commission is expected to finalise a deal with Morocco in the next months. A deal that it is thus negotiated with the wrong (and unlawful) interlocutors, and one lacking any impact assessment in terms of trade effects on the EU market.
"So far, the Commission has not presented any credible figures on the trade flow from Western Sahara to the EU. This goes against long-established EU practice", Contini continues. "It is hard to imagine EU governments agreeing to a trade deal with any given nation, without knowing the relevant facts and figures. They would never sign a blank check. Yet when it comes to Western Sahara, all logic and legal requirements are out of the window. It is a joke."
Both EU Member States and the European Parliament will cast a vote on the outcome of the negotiations. "It is hard to imagine how Member States - and Members of the European Parliament - will be able to justify approving an agreement which has been negotiated without any due consideration to international and European law, and ultimately, without any due consideration to the interests of European businesses and consumers", Contini observes.
The European Commission said yesterday that products originating from Western Sahara must be labelled as from Western Sahara, not Morocco.
In case of reasonable doubt on the true origin of the product - Morocco or Western Sahara - EU customs should "request verification from the competent Moroccan authorities", says the EU Commission.
What is EU's position on labelling of products from occupied Western Sahara? The EU Commission has now for the third time published a response to a parliamentary question on the matter, but the latest version fails to address the question.