La Commission Européenne confuse après la décision juridique
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Une audition au Parlement Européen laisse de nombreuses questions et peu de réponses sur la réponse de l'UE à la décision de la Cour Européenne d'annuler les accords bilatéraux avec le Maroc qui incluent le Sahara Occidental occupé.

26 octobre 2021

Hier, 25 octobre, la commission du commerce international (INTA) du Parlement européen a tenu une audition sur le récent arrêt du Tribunal de l'Union Européenne annulant les accords de commerce et de pêche UE-Maroc pour leur application au Sahara Occidental occupé. Bien qu'initialement prévue à huis clos, les députés ont réussi à faire en sorte que la réunion soit publique et donc visible ici.

Il s'agissait de la première discussion du Parlement et de la Commission sur le sujet après l'arrêt historique de la Cour du 29 septembre, dans le contexte des débats entre les États membres de l'UE sur l'opportunité ou non de faire appel de la décision.

La Cour a statué qu'aucun accord commercial avec le Maroc ne peut inclure le Sahara Occidental sans le consentement explicite du peuple sahraoui, et que ce consentement est obtenu via le représentant internationalement reconnu des Sahraouis, le Front Polisario.

Des représentants du département du commerce de la Commission européenne (DG Commerce), des douanes et de la fiscalité (DG TAXUD) et du service d'action extérieure de l'UE ont présenté un état des lieux aux députés européens. Lisez une transcription de leurs déclarations ci-dessous (en anglais).

Nele Eichhorn, chef d'unité à la DG Commerce, a réitéré l'importance de préserver de bonnes relations avec le Maroc, partenaire commercial et d'investissement important de l'Union, tout en reconnaissant également la nécessité de disposer d'un cadre juridique clair et prévisible pour les opérateurs de l'UE.

Dominic Schnichels, directeur par intérim de la politique douanière à la DG TAXUD a résumé l'arrêt de la Cour en quatre points : le Tribunal a conclu que le Front Polisario a qualité pour agir devant la Cour ; que l'extension de l'accord commercial avec le Maroc au Sahara Occidental a créé des droits mais aussi des obligations pour le peuple du territoire - ce qui requiert leur consentement ; le Front Polisario est considéré comme le représentant légitime du peuple du Sahara Occidental dans tous les aspects, et pas seulement en rapport avec le processus de l'ONU ; et enfin que le Polisario n'a pas consenti à ce que l'accord commercial soit appliqué au Sahara Occidental. M. Schnichels a déclaré que le Conseil a jusqu'au 16 décembre pour décider de faire ou non appel de la décision. Il a souligné à plusieurs reprises qu'aucune décision n'avait été prise concernant un éventuel recours. Les conséquences immédiates de ne pas faire appel impliqueraient l'introduction de tarifs douaniers importants pour les produits originaires du Sahara Occidental, qui ne sont pas couverts par le cadre de la nation la plus favorisée de l'OMC car le Sahara Occidental n'est pas membre de l'OMC. M. Schnichels a déclaré que la Commission fournira plus tard cette année une mise à jour sur les avantages de l'application de l'accord commercial UE-Maroc au Sahara Occidental et sur les conclusions de la mission de la Commission sur le territoire en septembre 2021 qui a montré qu'une partie importante de l'économie l'activité sur le territoire dépend de l'exportation vers l'UE.

Enfin, le Service pour l'Action Extérieure de l'UE a cherché à se démarquer des commentaires plutôt dédaigneux de la DG TAXUD concernant le prétendu refus du Polisario de participer aux "consultations" liées aux accords, et a souligné qu'il avait été en contact avec la plupart des groupes de la société civile du Sahara Occidental en 2018 dans le cadre de ses consultations sur l'accord, y compris le Polisario qui n'avait pas formellement participé à la consultation, mais a des consultations techniques régulières avec le SEAE, également pendant le temps des consultations.

La principale question des député·e·s européen·ne·s était de savoir comment continuer.

  • Rapporteure permanente pour les relations commerciales avec le Maghreb, Kathleen Van Brempt (Belgique, S&D) a exprimé son "malaise" face à la présentation de la Commission, car elle "ne contient aucun premier pas vers une solution possible, et cela me fait un peu peur car cette décision n'est pas nouvelle". Alors qu'elle ne doute pas de la décision du Conseil de faire appel, elle encourage la Commission à utiliser ce temps pour préparer une solution ou un plan B qui respecte 2 principes importants : le respect de l'ordre juridique international et européen, et la préservation de l'importante relation avec le Maroc . Elle souhaite savoir si la Commission envisage d'obtenir formellement l'accord du Polisario et exige des réponses plus concrètes pour l'avenir. Mm Van Brempt a également exprimé sa préoccupation que la Commission continue de faire référence au processus de consultation qu'elle a entrepris en 2018, que la Cour a rejeté comme ne respectant pas l'exigence de consentement.
  • Le rapporteur permanent de l'AFET sur le Maroc Andrey Kovatchev (Bulgarie, PPE) a déclaré qu'à son avis la Cour n'avait pas donné de directives claires sur ce qui constitue un consentement et a exprimé sa préoccupation pour les personnes "qui y vivent réellement". L'UE ne peut pas organiser un référendum au Sahara Occidental pour obtenir le consentement du peuple, a-t-il déclaré. Il a indiqué que son groupe politique, le Parti populaire européen, soutenait un appel.
  • Le rapporteur fictif du groupe Renaissance, Jérémy Decerle (France), a salué la situation comme une invitation à créer une sécurité juridique pour les opérateurs. Il a souligné l'importance de la traçabilité et de la transparence.
  • La rapporteure fictive de l'INTA sur le Maghreb pour le groupe Verts/ALE, Saskia Bricmont (Belgique, Ecolo), a reproché à la Commission d'avoir "menti" au Parlement sur la légalité des accords annulés par la Cour. Elle a demandé à la Commission d'expliquer sa stratégie de sortie et les compensations envisagées pour le peuple du Sahara Occidental. Elle a demandé si la pratique consistant à accepter les contrôles de conformité effectués par les autorités marocaines au Sahara Occidental et à inclure les exportateurs du territoire sur la liste des établissements marocains agréés était conforme à l'arrêt de la Cour (la Commission n'a pas répondu à ces questions spécifiques).
  • Marco Campomenosi (Italie), du groupe d'extrême droite ID (Italie, Lega), a souligné que le Parlement a besoin de réponses du Conseil, car il s'agit d'une question hautement politique. Il s'est demandé comment la position du peuple du Sahara Occidental peut être connue, et s'il peut donner des garanties de traçabilité.
  • La députée européenne Tiziana Beghin (Italie, non-inscrits) a également souhaité que la Commission soit claire sur ses projets à venir. Elle a souligné que des relations fortes avec le Maroc doivent être maintenues, mais que le consentement des Sahraouis est tout aussi important. Elle a appelé à une coopération étroite avec le nouveau gouvernement marocain, qu'elle considérait comme plus moderne.
  • L'eurodéputée Salima Yenbou (France, Verts/ALE) de la commission des Affaires étrangères du PE, a regretté que la Commission ne se soit conformée à aucune des cinq décisions. Elle a déclaré qu'il était temps de travailler à une solution constructive, qui place les droits de l'homme au centre des préoccupations de l'UE et    puisse être un nouveau point de départ pour l'ensemble de la région méditerranéenne, désormais en proie à des tensions notamment autour du conflit non résolu de le Sahara Occidental.
  • L'eurodéputé Andrea Cozzolino (Italie, S&D), président de la délégation du PE pour les relations avec le Maghreb, s'est prononcé en faveur d'un appel, tout en soulignant que des efforts doivent être faits pour trouver des solutions qui prennent en compte les intérêts du peuple du Sahara Occidental et reflétent également les développements internationaux.
  • Le député européen Zoido Alvarez (Espagne, PPE) a souligné que la Commission doit assurer l'emploi des pêcheurs espagnols.
  • L'eurodéputé Joachim Schuster (Allemagne, S&D) a déclaré qu'il était grand temps d'accepter la réalité, soulignant que la Cour dit clairement que le Polisario doit consentir aux accords de l'UE concernant le Sahara Occidental. Alors que le conflit au Sahara Occidental est entre le Maroc et le Polisario, l'UE doit contribuer activement à sa résolution, a-t-il déclaré, signalant que la situation pourrait être gagnant-gagnant pour toutes les parties concernées.

En guise de conclusion, le président de l'INTA Bernd Lange (Allemagne, S&D) a souligné que la réponse de la Commission aux questions des députés n'avait pas été tout à fait satisfaisante. La rapporteure permanente de l'INTA, Mm Van Brempt, s'est engagée à convoquer une réunion du groupe de suivi sur le commerce avec le Maghreb afin de donner suite à la discussion.

L'arrêt du 29 septembre 2021 n'était pas le premier du genre et ne laisse aucun doute possible sur son interprétation. Tout en clarifiant la personnalité juridique du Front Polisario en tant que représentant internationalement reconnu du peuple du Sahara Occidental, la Cour de l'UE a essentiellement suivi le même raisonnement que dans ses arrêts de 2016 et de 2018. Elle a de nouveau confirmé que le Sahara Occidental a un statut qui est séparé et distinct du Maroc et, ainsi doit être considéré comme un tiers à tout accord UE-Maroc. L'extension de la portée territoriale d'un accord au territoire nécessite nécessairement le consentement du peuple du Sahara Occidental par le biais de sa représentation, a répété la Cour – ajoutant que les consultations de la population locale menées par les institutions de l'UE ne respectaient pas cette condition, ce qu'avait dénoncé à l'époque, entre autres, Western Sahara Resource Watch.

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Transcription non officielle par WSRW des déclarations initiales et des réponses de la Commission européenne et du SEAE, audition INTA du 25 octobre 2021. En anglais.

Déclarations initiales

 

DG TRADE's Head of Unit for the Southern Neighbourhood, Ms Nele Eichhorn:

“Thank you very much chairman Lange, honourable members. Thank you for the invitation to the Committee. As we have the occasion to present to this Committee previously, when we participated in the exchanges of views on the southern neighbourhood at large, or on the state of EU-Morocco trade relations and developments in particular. 

Morocco is an important trade and investment partner for the EU. It is the first trading partner in the southern neighbourhood, and the 20th overall. Trade between the EU and Morocco is worth €35 billion: the worth of goods that are exchanged. This was the figure in 2020, so it is indeed an important, sizeable relationship. 

The development of the trading relationship has been underpinned by the various agreements concluded between the EU and Morocco, notably the Association Agreement of 1996 which established a Free Trade Area, as well the agreement on additional liberalisation of trade in agricultural products, processed agricultural products, fish and fisheries products which was signed back in 2010. 

It is of high importance that economic operators on both sides can take decisions on the basis of a clear and predictable legal framework, and in this context we do attach great importance to the rulings of the European Court of Justice from the point of view of their impact on trade. 

In relation to the above-referred Court rulings, we note that the Court has decided to maintain the effect of the decisions in force for now. My colleague from DG TAXUD, Mr Schnichels, will now take you through the implications and the rulings themselves. With your kind permission I would hand  over to my colleague of DG TAXUD.”

 

DG TAXUD, Director for Customs Policy in DG TAXUD and the acting Director for International Customs Relations, Mr Dominic Schnichels:

“Mr Lange, honourable members, good afternoon. It is a great pleasure to be here with you today. My name is Dominic Schnichels, I am the Director for Customs Policy in DG TAXUD and the acting Director for International Customs Relations. 

Let me start with a short description of the rulings. As the Chair has explained, on the 29th of September the General Court annulled two Council Decisions relating to international agreements with Morocco. The first agreement was the agreement on extending tariff preferences to products originating in the Western Sahara, and the second agreement was the agreement on sustainable fisheries. And the Court decided, like the Chair has explained, that the effects of the Council Decisions are maintained over a period of two months to allow for an appeal against the judgment, and in case of an appeal by the EU institutions, until the judgment is rendered in the appeal case. The Court case granted this grace period inter alia in order to preserve the legal certainty over the Union’s international commitments. 

In this meeting I would like to focus on the agreement extending the tariff preferences to the Western Sahara, the so-called agricultural agreement. This agreement amend Protocols 1 and 2 to the Association Agreement, and extends the tariff preferences provided under the Association Agreement to products originating in Western Sahara. This agreement entered into force on the 19th of July, and as you know was the result of an extensive and long negotiation process, inter alia the European Parliament also adopted a non-legislative resolution giving its consent to the agreement. The agreement started applying on the 19th of July 2019. Since then we can confirm that the agreement has been implemented smoothly and that Member States customs have not raised any issue concerning its application. The agreement meant that the Western Sahara products can benefit from the preferential regime as explained in the annual report that the Commission issued in December 2020. 

Let me now say a few words about the Court ruling. In its judgment of the 29th September, the General Court examines first the admissibility of the case and the standing of the Polisario Front to launch the court case. The General Court concluded that Polisario has standing and is directly and individually concerned by the Council Decisions, so that the case was admissible. The Court also considered that the agreement constituted an explicit extension of the agreement with Morocco to the territory of Western Sahara, and that it created not only rights for the Western Sahara people, but created also obligations for them. Therefore the agreements should have been subject to the consent of the concerned population. In this respect, the General Court referred to the ECJ ruling of the 16th of December 2016. The ruling of the General Court furthermore sets out that the Polisario Front is the legitimate representative of the Western Sahara people not only with respect to the UN peace process but also more generally for any aspect or act concerning the Western Sahara people. Since the Polisario Front did not express its consent for the agreements in question, the General Court concluded that the condition as established in the ECJ Judgment of 2016 for the extension of the agreement to Western Sahara was not fulfilled. In conclusion, the General Court annulled the Decision, as well as the fisheries Decision relating to fisheries, but maintained the application for the period during which an appeal can be lodged or until the judgment of the Court of Justice upon appeal. The deadline for the introduction of an appeal expires the 16th of December. Should an appeal not be lodged, the immediate consequence would be that imports of products from Western Sahara would cease to benefit of the preferential benefit provided by the agreement. Thus all imports from Western Sahara would be subject to significant tariffs. As Western Sahara is not a member of the WTO, import from Western Sahara would not even be entitled to benefit from the Most-Favoured-Nation treatment under the WTO rules. 

Let me now turn to the Commission’s position. Since the ruling of the General Court, the Commission has been carefully assessing the decision and is considering the options to move forward. I should stress however that at this stage no decision has been taken and there is still quite some time. In this respect it is also important to note and to stress that Polisario’s court case was directed against the Council’s Decisions. This means that it is primarily up to the Council to decide whether to lodge an appeal or not. 

As stated in the joint declaration of the High Representative Borell and Morocco’s Foreign Affairs Minister Bourita of 29 September, both sides agree that they will take the necessary measures to ensure a legal framework that guarantees the maintenance and stability of trade relations between the EU and the kingdom of Morocco. The Commission will continue its efforts to ensure a correct implementation of the agreement as long as it is applicable. The Commission will also present its report on the impact of the agreement before the end of the year. This report will be based on information received from several sources, including the information system set up by Morocco. It will also draw on the technical visit of the Commission services to Western Sahara at the end of September. This visit, that included numerous visits to facilities and meetings with economic and social actors, showed that a considerable part of the productive activity in the Western Sahara depends on exports to the EU, and that a preferential tariff treatment accorded to the Western Sahara exports plays an important role, even a decisive role in the development of certain agricultural and fish processing activities in Western Sahara, and thus for the employment of the region.

This concludes my introductory statements; I am obviously very happy to respond to your questions. Thank you very much.”

 

 

In response to questions from MEPs

 

DG TAXUD, Director for Customs Policy in DG TAXUD and the acting Director for International Customs Relations, Mr Dominic Schnichels:

“Thank you very much, the pleasure will be mine, and if it is OK with you I would pass part of the questions also to my colleague Fernando. If I listened carefully and I am sure I might have missed something but I would group the questions essentially under three or four main headers.

I think the first question that came from Ms Van Brempt was what are the scenarios, what is going to happen. I think at this stage there are 2 scenarios. Scenario number 1 is that we will have an appeal and then the agreement will continue to apply until the Court of Justice has rendered its judgment. If there is an appeal, the EU institutions that lodge the appeal will do so with the aim to get the agreement confirmed. The second scenario is that there is no appeal and then the agreement will expire with the consequences that I’ve outlined.

And that brings me to the second point, that was raised for the first time, I think, by Mr Kovatchev, I think it was also mentioned by many others – on the one hand questioning, Ms Bricmont – but there were also some who stressed that there are significant benefits for the people in the West Sahara, and also – particularly Mr Alvárez – stressed there are significant benefits for EU companies like the fishermen in Spain that benefit from the fisheries agreement. So, I think this is really what we see: the agreement that has been reached has brought advantages to all sides, and that is I think also confirmed by our reports and by our visits in Western Sahara – that it brings benefits for the people of Western Sahara and of course also EU businesses. 

The third point, again originally raised by Ms Van Brempt, is full traceability: the origin of the products, how can we make sure that only the right products benefit. That is a question that I would like my colleague Fernando to explain.

And then I think the last point, the fourth point, is how do reach consensus or consent by the people in West Sahara. This has been raised by many, again by Ms Van Brempt, by Mr Maurel, MS Bricmont, Mr Schüster, Ms Beghin and Mr Campomenosi. Let me in this respect really clarify that a lot of consultations took place, and I think you know that at the time when the agreement was negotiated and concluded, indeed in order to ensure that the appropriate involvement of the people concerned – that they are involved. All main Western Sahara civil society and other organisations, and also the representative bodies were invited to these consultations, and that also included the Polisario Front. But unfortunately, the Polisario Front refused to engage with the process and did not engage with the EU. That is at least – and I think you know that – many of you also mentioned that it is really a complicated political matter, and I think that that is just true. But at the end, of course, only when we talk will we be able to find a solution but we really did make the effort, we really did try to make the effort and reach out but it was unfortunately not responded positively. Fernando, if you could say on the fourth block, everything related to traceability and how do we ensure origin of the products. Thank you.”

 

Mr Fernando Perreau de Pinninck of DG TAXUD:

“Thank you, Mr Chairman, I will address the questions of traceability as well as the question regarding how to respect the conditions of the agreement. 

With respect to traceability, the products originating from Western Sahara are accompanied by a certificate of origin issued by the Moroccan customs authorities. This is the procedure that was provided for under the agreement and is respected. The certificates do not specify wherefrom the products come actually, but should there be any question regarding the true origin of the products – whether or not they are entitled to the preferences – in those cases Member States customs authorities can make a request for the verification of origin to the Moroccan customs authorities to check where the product is originating, whether the product has been imported in accordance with the conditions established in the agreement, and whether or not the product is entitled to preferences. We are in regular contact with the Member States customs authorities, and we are compiling the information as to how many requests they have made, and apparently, the initial information we have is that there are not many, not a great amount of requests for verification - meaning that the Member States customs authorities do not appear to have serious concerns on imports from Western Sahara. 

Here, there is an element that maybe I mention in passing, with regard to the so-called labelling, or marking of origin, which is a different issue which is not addressed by the agreement because this relates to the marketing of products, once the product is within the EU. So I leave this question now outside. 

With respect to the conditions for import, actually, products from Western Sahara use the same quota as provided to Morocco. In other words, the fact that the agreement extends the preferences to Western Sahara doesn’t imply that there is going to be an increase in exports from Morocco, especially for tomatoes which as you know is subject to quantitative limits. So in that respect we can say that the impact that this will have for European tomato producers is actually very limited because in any case the quota will not be exceeded, and this is very strictly controlled by the customs under a system which makes sure that these quantities will always be respected. 

Thank you.”

 

DG TRADE's Head of Unit for the Southern Neighbourhood, Ms Nele Eichhorn:

“Perhaps just to address the question of how to preserve the trading relationship: as I said there is no doubt that it is an important trading relationship between the EU and Morocco. The joint statement of the High Representative, Vice President and the Foreign Minister of Morocco at the end of September also said that measures would be taken to ensure the legal framework, which guarantees the continuity and stability of trade relations. In the meantime we continue implementing the Association Agreement, obviously, and the trade therein. And as I said as well, and Dominic – my colleague from DG TAXUD – for now the effects of these agreements remain in force, so we will do our best to work internally, work also with Morocco, identify common interests, and I expect that we would probably be invited back the Committee in order to then explain how things go about in the meantime. But for now, I think we just have to take note that the effect on trade has not been altered, as we speak today. Thank you.

 

Mr Colin Steinbach, Deputy Head of the Maghreb Division at the European External Action Service:

“Thank you very much, and thank you Mr Chairman, for giving me floor as well, and to all honourable Members for their questions and interventions. I think most questions have already been addressed by my colleagues from the European Commission. There was one which I wanted to perhaps compliment on a little bit, which was about contacts with the Polisario Front. While my colleague has already mentioned that there were indeed contacts with many known, or all known, Western Sahara civil society and other organisations, and any other bodies that are interested in the economic, social and political issues concerning Western Sahara, this happened in the run-up to the agreements, in the preparation in order to consult everybody who is of relevance. As mentioned by my colleague, the Polisario Front did not engage formally in this consultation process, although they were invited. But I just wanted to add that we do regularly have meetings at technical level with the Polisario Front and that these meetings also took place, informally and at technical level, during these consultations. And the EEAS remains open, obviously, to further discussions and continues these meetings also now and going forward. Thank you.”

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