Who Cares about Western Sahara?

f Laayoune, capital of Western Sahar, satellite image from wikipedia

The European Court of Justice issued a ruling on Feb. 27, 2018 that a EU-Morocco fisheries deal was valid as long as it was not applied to the waters of the disputed Western Sahara territory since this would be a breach of its population’s rights.  Morocco controls most of Western Sahara and considers it part of its territory. It fought a 16-year war with the Polisario Front independence movement, which established the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.  The United Nations says the region has a right to self-determination and campaigners have sought to challenge the EU’s trade deals with Morocco in the courts because they include the desert region.  Western Sahara, a contested region since Spain withdrew from it in 1975,“does not form part of the territory of the Kingdom of Morocco,” the ECJ said.   Therefore, the region’s adjacent waters were not part of the“Moroccan fishing zone” mentioned in the treaty with the EU.

The court has said before that EU deals signed with Morocco could not include Western Saharan resources because its citizens had not been in a position to agree to its conditions. In February 2017, Morocco’s government said it would end economic cooperation with the EU if it did not honour a farming deal.  Though largely a desert region, western Sahara has significant phosphate reserves and offshore fishing grounds.

The ECJ’s ruling could disrupt not only EU fleets in the fish-rich waters, but also broader co-operation between European capitals and Rabat in areas including migration and terrorism. It might also have potential implications for other trade deals between the EU and countries alleged to breach human rights laws.

Excerpts from The ECJ Fishy Business, Financial Times, Feb. 27, 2018; EU top court: EU-Morocco fishing deal valid as long as not applied to W. Sahara, Reuters, Feb. 27, 2018

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