Blue fishing boats on an ocean coast in Essaouira, Morocco

EU Court Annuls EU Fisheries Deal With Morocco, Backing Polisario

A European Union court has struck down the bloc’s trade and fisheries deals with Morocco, saying that the consent of the people of Western Sahara is required to implement agreements covering the territory.

October 20, 2021

The European Union’s second-highest court has struck down the bloc’s trade and fisheries deals with Morocco, saying they were agreed to without the consent of the people of Western Sahara.

Morocco annexed the vast territory on Africa’s Atlantic coast in 1975 after the withdrawal of Spain from what was then Spanish Sahara. Morocco considers the territory, now known as Western Sahara, as its own. However, the annexation was largely unrecognized internationally and opposed by the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, which fought a 16-year guerrilla war against the kingdom. The United States recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara last year. More than 20 mostly African and Arab states have opened consulates in the natural-resource rich territory.

The United Nations brokered a ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario in 1991 and has been calling for a mutually acceptable political solution to the conflict. Morocco has offered autonomy to the Western Sahara, but Algeria and the Polisario have rejected this, insisting on a referendum with independence as an option. Such a referendum has never taken place.

The General Court of the European Union first accepted that the Polisario Front had the legal capacity to bring proceedings before EU courts, which the respondents had questioned. It then accepted the Polisario’s view that the consent of the people of Western Sahara was required to implement agreements covering the territory and that steps, such as consultations, taken by EU authorities could not be regarded as having secured that consent.

“The court takes the view that, in so far as the agreements at issue apply expressly to Western Sahara and, as regards the decision concerning the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement, to the waters adjacent to that territory, they concern the people of that territory and require the consent of its people,” the court ruled.

Morocco Plans to Appeal Ruling

The EU and Morocco responded to the court’s decision by issuing a joint statement saying they would “take necessary measures to ensure the legal framework guaranteeing the continuation and stability of trade between the EU and Morocco.” The court said its annulment of the agreements would not take place for two months, giving the two trade partners time to lodge an appeal. Morocco plans to appeal the judgment, Reuters reported, citing a senior diplomatic source.

Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said an appeal was unlikely to change the Luxembourg-based court’s position, the EUObserver reported.

The court’s decision was widely expected, as it reflects rulings in December 2016 and February 2018 that earlier versions of the trade and fisheries deals only applied to Morocco and not the Western Sahara. The Polisario Front challenged two EU–Morocco agreements struck in 2019 that had been revised to add the territory and its adjacent waters.

Total trade in goods between the EU and Morocco amounted to EUR 35.3 billion last year. The EU is Morocco’s biggest trade partner, accounting for 56% of its goods trade in 2019. About 64% of Moroccan exports—led by electrical machinery and transport equipment (EUR 6.1 billion), agri-foods (EUR 2.2 billion), and textiles and clothing (EUR 1.4 billion)—went to the bloc that year, and 51% of Morocco’s imports came from the EU. Services trade between the two amounted to EUR 10.7 billion in 2019.

Morocco exported EUR 434 million in fish, tomatoes, and melons from Western Sahara to Europe in 2019, according to the European Commission. The monetary gain for Morocco includes access rights, sectoral support from the EU, and additional contributions from the owners of fishing vessels. The kingdom stands to lose EUR 52 million annually in European funds, with the fate of some 128 EU fishing vessels hanging in the balance. These vessels—mostly from Spain, but also from Portugal, France, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, and the United Kingdom—are allowed to fish in Morocco’s exclusive economic zone under the partnership.

News details

Focus area