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Siding with Sahrawi rebels, court nixes EU-Morocco trade pacts

A European Union court ordered the EU to take into consideration the concerns of the Sahrawi people of the Western Sahara when it enters economic deals with Morocco.

(CN) — A European Union court dealt a blow to warming relations between the EU and Morocco on Wednesday when it annulled agricultural and fishing deals between the two sides because they did not take into consideration the concerns of the Sahrawi people, an ethnic group fighting for an independent Western Sahara.

The General Court sided with the Polisario Front, an armed rebel and political group that represents the Sahrawi people in a long-running territorial conflict with Morocco over the former Spanish protectorate known as Western Sahara.

In its ruling, an English translation of which is not yet available, the court said the trade deals between the EU and Morocco were unlawful because they did not receive “the consent of the people of Western Sahara.”

“The steps taken by the EU authorities before the conclusion of the agreements at issue cannot be regarded as having secured the consent of the people of Western Sahara,” the court found, according to a court news release. “The ‘consultations’ conducted by the institutions with the ‘people concerned’ did not amount to an expression of the consent of the people of Western Sahara.”

The General Court's decision can be appealed to the EU's high court, the European Court of Justice. But the prospect of the ruling being overturned may be slim because the high court previously ruled that the EU's economic agreements with Morocco cannot apply to the Western Sahara unless the Sahrawi people give their consent.

In 2019, the Polisario Front sued the EU over its decision to include the Western Sahara in agricultural and fishing deals the bloc had with Morocco. The deals lower tariffs on Moroccan agricultural goods and allow EU fishing boats into waters off the coast of Western Sahara.

With these deals, the EU was seen as cynically deepening economic ties with Morocco by recognizing Rabat's claims to Western Sahara. Also, the EU was seen as eager to please Morocco and ensure it stops refugees from entering the EU through two Spanish enclaves in Morocco. Morocco has previously put pressure on the EU by allowing refugees to cross into those enclaves.

Polisario Front argued the deals violated international laws because the Sahrawi people had not been consulted and had not approved this exploitation of Western Sahara. The group also argued that EU agreements “encourage the policy of annexation of that territory by Morocco.”

Under a 1991 ceasefire brokered by the United Nations, the Polisario Front was recognized as representing the Sahrawis. The U.N. agreement stipulated that a referendum should be held to determine the future of Western Sahara, but that has not taken place. Both sides blame the other for the breakdown in talks.

Morocco's claims over the territory got a big boost in 2020 when the Trump White House reversed decades of U.S. policy and recognized Rabat's claims over Western Sahara. This change in policy was part of a deal to get Morocco to normalize relations with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords. The Biden administration is reviewing the Trump administration's decision.

Sahrawis make up the majority of people in this sparsely populated part of the Sahara Desert, which is about the size of Colorado. But it is rich in coveted phosphate deposits and its offshore waters are prized for their abundant fish stocks. Also, its coastal waters may be rich in oil and gas reserves.

Upon the withdrawal of Spain in 1975, Morocco annexed two-thirds of Western Sahara, claiming it historically belonged to the kingdom. That spurred the Polisario Front to conduct a bloody guerrilla war that ended in 1991 with the U.N. ceasefire.

Recently, however, following aggressive Moroccan military moves, the rebel group announced a resumption of its armed resistance. The group is backed by Algeria, a longtime rival of Morocco. Algeria has given shelter to Polisario Front fighters and houses Sahrawi refugees.

For Morocco, Western Sahara has strategic importance. As it is, Morocco's land routes to the rest of Africa are cut off because the Polisario Front occupies the southern part of Western Sahara and its border with Algeria has been closed for about 30 years.

In its defense, the EU's lawyers argued that the Polisario Front had no standing in bringing a lawsuit because it did “not possess legal personality” under EU and international law.

But the General Court rejected that and found that “the applicant is recognized internationally as a representative of the people of Western Sahara, even if that recognition is confined to the self determination process of that territory.”

The court said the economic agreements “apply expressly to Western Sahara” and “concern the people of that territory and require the consent of its people."

To not cause immediate economic harm and uncertainty, the court said its order will not go into force for two months.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. Follow him on Twitter

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