On 23 January in Brussels, Moroccan Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, Rural Development, Waters and Forests Aziz Akhannouch held talks with European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella on strategic cooperation between the two partners, particularly in the field of fisheries.
Last year, both parties had expressed their willingness to renew their fisheries agreement, “which is essential for both parties”.
Yet, a non-binding opinion by the EU Court of Justice’s Advocate General Melchior Wathelet of 10 January has stirred up debate over the renewal of the EU-Morocco fisheries agreement.
The Advocate General’s conclusions came in response to the British High Court of Justice, which sought his advice regarding a Polisario-backed UK association claim that the deal does not benefit the local population (Case C-266/16, Western Sahara Campaign UK).
This came just two days after the European Commission asked for a Council mandate to open negotiations on a new fisheries protocol between the EU and Morocco.
The current Fisheries Partnership Agreement, which began in 2007 for a period of four years, has been tacitly renewed twice and is set to expire on 14 July 2018.
Neither the Commission nor Morocco formally reacted to the opinion, which shows their determination to move forward on renewing the fisheries deal.
A spokesperson for Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy only commented that Morocco is ‘a key partner’ with whom the Union has ‘developed a rich and diversified partnership for several years’.
According to legal experts based in Brussels, the opinion of a Public Prosecutor or Internal Auditor is neither the only or final opinion. It’s the Court that will have the last words as the final decision-maker and “shall fall in line with its purely judicial competences without being politically motivated” to honour its role as defender of European norms.
Although the majority of Court decisions follow up the Advocate General’s opinion, a similar opinion by Advocate General Wathelet was disavowed by the Court in 2016, which decided in favour of the legality of the fisheries deal between the EU and Morocco and the inadmissibility of an appeal by the Polisario Front.
It is rather ironic that the validity of the deal is being contested by a third party, having no judicial personality and being described by many as a lobbyist supported by Algeria.
"It is rather ironic that the validity of the deal is being contested by a third party, having no judicial personality and being described by many as a lobbyist supported by Algeria"
The Polisario Front seems to be pushing the EU and its Court to undertake a role, which is not theirs to play – to be an arbiter in an international conflict falling under the UN auspices.
Advocate General Whatelet’s rather biased opinion makes a reference to the self-determination principle of the UN Charter, while ignoring the principle of the permanent sovereignty over natural resources endorsed by The Hague regulations and Fourth Geneva Convention.
In fact, Morocco considers Western Sahara, a sparsely populated stretch of desert having offshore fishing as well as phosphate and possibly oil reserves, as its ‘southern provinces’.
When Spanish colonial powers left in 1975, Morocco claimed and administered the territory as its own, since it had been historically an integral part of the Kingdom. The UN has been brokering the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front since the 1991 truce.
Moreover, an independent study evaluating the current EU-Morocco fisheries agreement states that the deal benefits local populations and enhances economic development, via landings in ports and the employment of hundreds of local seamen on board EU vessels.
According to co-presidents of the Mixed Hispano-Moroccan Commission of Fishing Professionals, Omar Akouri and Javier Garat, it facilitates ‘the sustainable management of fisheries resources’ and creates jobs.
The agreement between the EU and Morocco involves around 120 vessels from 11 EU countries (Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, the Netherlands, Ireland, Poland and the United Kingdom).
The EU’s financial contribution (€16m for access payment to the resource plus €14m for the support of Moroccan sectoral fisheries policy), is way below the gains of European countries.
"An independent study evaluating the current EU-Morocco fisheries agreement states that the deal benefits local populations and enhances economic development, via landings in ports and the employment of hundreds of local seamen on board EU vessels"
The deal is especially important for Spain, whose General Secretary of Fisheries also underlined its indispensability for Spanish fishing interest and Spanish-Moroccan bilateral relations.
Of course, relations between the EU and Morocco could not only be resumed by fisheries cooperation, which has been in place since 1995. Morocco is not only an important trade partner, currently conducting 70 per cent of its trade with the EU, but also a strategic ally, especially when it comes to common challenges, such as terrorism and migration.
If the Court decides to play politics in its final decision in May, it could risk alienating a staunch EU ally, which could turn to Russia, China or other countries in the Middle East and Africa and hamper cooperation in important security matters.
Moreover, the court’s misplaced attempts to define Morocco’s status in Western Sahara could prejudice the ongoing UN negotiations and lead to the toughing of the stance of Morocco regarding the resolution of the conflict.