(CN) – Europe’s highest court ruled Tuesday that waters adjacent to the Western Sahara are not covered by Morocco’s fishing agreement with the EU because the mineral-rich desert expanse does not belong to the kingdom.
Though Morocco occupies much of the Western Sahara, control of the region has been in dispute since 1975 when the United Nations ordered Spain to decolonize it.
An independence movement called the Front Polisario occupies a smaller part of the territory in the east, and the United Nations has been trying since 1991 to settle the group’s claims with Morocco.
The European Court of Justice waded into the tense political topic meanwhile to determine the validity of a partnership that the EU and Morocco formed in 2006 on agricultural and fishery products.
Set to expire this July, the fisheries agreement spurred supporters of the Front Polisario to claim that it has allowed Morocco to grant fishing licenses for waters outside the kingdom’s control.
The Western Sahara Campaign brought the underlying challenge before the Queen’s Bench in England, but Britain’s High Court of Justice subsequently invited the EU’s top court in Luxembourg to weigh in.
That court’s Grand Chamber ruled Tuesday that the agreement cannot be invalidated because its references to the Moroccan fishing zone cannot be understood to include the waters adjacent to the Western Sahara.
Advocate General Melchior Wathelet advised the court last month in stronger language, saying “that the contested acts … breach the European Union’s obligation to respect the right to self-determination of the people of that territory and its obligation not to recognize an illegal situation resulting from a breach of that right and not to render aid or assistance in maintaining that situation.”
“Neither the Fisheries Agreement nor the 2013 Protocol contains the necessary legal safeguards for the fisheries exploitation to satisfy the requirements of the criterion which requires that that exploitation is for the benefit of the people of Western Sahara,” Wathelet had said.