In a hearing in the European Parliament yesterday, parliamentarians expressed differing opinions as to whether the ruling of the EU Court should be respected or not.
Archive photo: A Saharawi refugee protesting the EU's fisheries activities in Western Sahara.
After Monday’s hearing in the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee (INTA), the EU Court ruling annulling both the EU-Morocco Trade Agreement and Fisheries Agreement was today debated in the Parliament’s Fisheries Committee (PECH).
Like their colleagues in INTA, PECH Members wanted clarifications from the EU Council and Commission on the road ahead.
The discussions revealed substantially differing opinions on the question of EU agreements in relation to occupied Western Sahara. The Commission expressed its disagreement with the Court ruling, stating that the “local populations (sic)" benefit from the EU-Morocco agreements. No reference was made to the fact that all Saharawi groups advocating for right to self-determination have objected to the agreements - including the UN recognised representative of the Saharawis, the Polisario Front.
The Members of the European Parliament (MEP) were split, some underlining that time has come to move on and accept the legal loss, while others stressed that the political relationship with Morocco is more important than the legal development.
While an EU Council representative was present at the meeting, he had not been authorised to speak – much to the dismay of the Fisheries Committee’s Chair, Pierre Karleskind (Renew, France). The EU Commission’s Department for Maritime Fisheries (DG MARE) was represented by Veronika Veits, Director for International Ocean Governance and Sustainable Fisheries.
Ms Veits stressed the importance of Morocco as a key-partner for the EU on many fronts, and that the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement (SFPA) should be seen in this context. She defended the current practice, stating that the “Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement is key for both Morocco and the European Union, also in light of the fact that it has lots of economic, social and political benefits". She went on to say that the “Agreement fully takes into account the ruling of the European Court of Justice of February 2018” and that “there is nothing in the Fisheries Agreement or its Protocol which would imply the recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty or sovereign rights over Western Sahara and the adjacent waters.”
A full transcript of Ms Veits' statement to the EP Fisheries Committee is included below.
Several intervening MEPs - all from Member States with fishing licences under the Agreement - called on Council to appeal, while others stressed that the time could better be used to comply with the ruling.
EU Commission’s Department for Maritime Fisheries (DG MARE), Director for International Ocean Governance and Sustainable Fisheries, Ms Veronika Veits:
“Thank you very much indeed, Mr Chairman, there seems to be a bit of a marathon in the Fisheries Committee. The General Court annulled the Council Decision on the Conclusion of the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement between the European Union and Morocco, its implementing Protocol and the Exchange of Letters accompanying the Agreement, as well as the Council Decision on the Allocation of Fishing Opportunities. It also annulled the Agreement between the European Union and Morocco granting tariff preferences to products of Moroccan origin in order to extent the preferences to products originating in Western Sahara. But obviously I will focus here on the fisheries agreement since the other agreement has been subject to discussion in INTA and Com Maghreb.
What’s important to understand is that the General Court decided that the effects of those annulment decisions are maintained over – of those decisions that are being annulled are maintained over a certain period. So they are maintained either for the time that is allowed for making an appeal, so that’s two months, or in case an appeal is lodged until the time the Court takes the judgment on the appeal. And this they did in order to preserve the European Union’s external action and legal certainty over its international commitment. So that’s what we have in front of us.
Let me talk a little bit about our Partnership Agreement with Morocco, and I would like to recall in this context that Morocco is a key partner for the European Union in many fronts, and not only in fisheries. So the Fisheries Partnership Agreement with Morocco needs to be seen in this wider perspective. It needs also to be recalled that our cooperation with Morocco in fisheries has a long history and as a result we have now a robust cooperation beyond the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement, multilaterally e.g. in important regional fisheries management organisations such as the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean or the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, and we have also a very good cooperation in the context of Sustainable Blue Economy.
So the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement is key for both Morocco and the European Union, also in light of the fact that it has lots of economic, social and political benefits. It’s clearly benefitting the marine environment, the biodiversity and brings social-economic benefits to the population. More specifically, it gives access to around 130 vessels flying the flag of 10 Member States. It contributes to scientific research, the modernisation of coastal infrastructures, and the economic and social development of coastal communities in Morocco and in the Western Sahara.
So, the current sustainable fisheries partnership agreement is the result of long negotiations. It entered into force on the 18th of July 2019, following the consent given by the European Parliament on the 12th,of February 2019 and the Council Decision of the 4th of March 2019 on the conclusion of the Agreement. The current Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement fully takes into account the ruling of the European Court of Justice of February 2018. What had that ruling said? In 2018, the European Court of Justice had ruled that the previous Agreement from 2007 and its Protocol of Implementation were not applicable to the waters off the coast of the territory of Western Sahara. The new Agreement, the currently applicable Agreement, spells out explicitly the fishing grounds to which it applies, and this includes the waters off the coast of Western Sahara. The exchange of letters which is an integral part of the current Agreement, states each party’s respective position on the status of the territory of the Western Sahara, and there is nothing in the Fisheries Agreement or its Protocol which would imply the recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty or sovereign rights over Western Sahara and the adjacent waters.
Importantly also in this context, the Agreement and its Protocol include provisions ensuring the fair distribution of the financial compensation amongst the population concerned. This means that this contribution benefits Western Sahara in proportion of the fishing activity that is taking place in the waters of this territory. Since the Agreement entered into force, it has been implemented smoothly, benefitting the EU fishing operations and the concerned population. In December 2020 after the first year of implementation, the joint committee under the current agreement assessed positively the fair geographical and social distribution of the socio-economic impacts of the Agreement’s financial contribution. Please be aware in this context that the conclusions from joint committee in question were sent to the European Parliament on the 4th of January this year.
So, the latest judgment of the General Court of the 29th of September 2021, is a judgment on the Agreement of fisheries and tariff preferences with Morocco, as I said. So, in essence, what does it say? The General Court ruled that the extension of the Agreement with Morocco to the territory of Western Sahara requires the consent of the population concerned. So that’s the essence of the judgment. And the Polisario Front, which the General Court considers to be the legitimate representative of the Western Sahara people did not express its consent to the proposed Agreements, and it is for that reason that the General Court concluded that the condition for an extension of the agreement to the Western Sahara was not fulfilled. So in conclusion, the judgment annulled the two Council Decisions, and as I said before, it maintains the application for the period during which an appeal could be lodged, or if an appeal is lodged, until the judgment of the Court of Justice upon such appeal. And this is to avoid the serious consequences of an annulment with immediate effect. The deadline for the introduction of an appeal expires on the 16th December. If an appeal is lodged, these effects would stand for the duration of the examination by the European Court of Justice, which usually takes around 2 years.
Should an appeal not be lodged, the immediate consequence would be that the European Union fleet would not be able to continue fishing in the waters that the Agreement covers as from mid-December, with consequences also on the financial obligations on our side as well as on the ongoing projects on the sectoral support.
I would like to stress here that the case was brought against the Council Decision. This means that it is primarily up to the Council to decide whether to lodge an appeal or not. And the Council is currently examining this option. But let me reassure you that also the Commission is carefully assessing all the elements of the judgment and exploring all the options for the way forward. We will also in the meantime continue the work on the correct application of the current agreement. For instance, we are scheduling a joint committee to take place before the end of 2021, in order to monitor and to take stock of the utilisation of the fishing opportunities and to assess the impact of the financial compensation. So in a nutshell, that is the factual situation which we are facing at the moment. Thank you very much.”
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