Morocco fishing deal causes rights row

‘Fish-for-cash’ deal to be extended by one year, but campaigners say pact breaks international law. A controversial fishing agreement between the European Union and Morocco looks set to be extended by one year, renewing criticisms that the EU is ignoring the rights of people living in disputed territory, in breach of international law.

The European Commission is expected to propose tomorrow (11 February) a one-year extension to the EU-Morocco fisheries partnership, a ‘fish-for-cash’ exchange that widens EU fishery opportunities. In 2005, the EU agreed to pay Morocco €144 million for rights to fish in Moroccan and Western Saharan waters.

Critics say that by extending the deal, the Commission is giving legitimacy to Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara, annexed in 1978 shortly after the end of Spain’s colonial administration. Lawyers at the European Parliament share the view of campaigners that the fisheries deal breaches international law, by ignoring the rights of the Saharawi people to control their natural resources.

Isabella Lövin, a Swedish Green MEP, said that extending the agreement would be tantamount to “legitimising occupied territory” and “completely wrong”. Citing the recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, she said: “It would be extremely unfortunate at this moment of history to prolong the agreement…[as] now we are seeing the spirit of people in north Africa not accepting undemocratic rule.”

Western Sahara’s independence movement, the Polisario Front, condemned the decision, blaming Spanish national interests. “Instead of wanting to go forward, it [Spain] is sullying the reputation of all EU countries for 100 fish licences tainted by human-rights abuses,” Mohamed Beissat, Polisario’s representative to the EU, told European Voice. Polisario is considering a legal challenge to any extension, Beissat said. “We are determined to pursue our rights,” he said, citing legal opinions from the UN and the European Parliament that EU fishing in the Western Sahara is illegal.

Maria Damanaki, the European commissioner for fisheries, has always said that the EU would renew the agreement, which is due to lapse at the end of this month, only if the Moroccan government could prove that the Saharawi people were benefitting from it. Following her request for this information in February 2010, the Moroccan government sent papers to Brussels in December. The Commission now says that it needs time to analyse the files before deciding on a new agreement. Informal UN-brokered talks between Morocco and the Polisario are due to resume in March. The last round of talks in January yielded no movement.

Time pressure

With the agreement due to lapse, the Commission faced a dilemma. Damanaki’s preferred option was to exclude the disputed territory to the south of Morocco from any extension of the agreement, but this was blocked by Commission colleagues. The second option, a one-year extension to the current deal, was presented to EU deputy ambassadors yesterday (9 February), at the request of Spain. “We are in an urgent situation now in order to avoid a legal vacuum. The Commission has decided that the ‘north only’ is no option,” said an EU source familiar with the details. Doubts remain about whether the extension will come into effect in time, as EU member states and the European Parliament both have to give their approval.

The Parliament’s lawyers are also questioning a separate trade deal aimed at opening up trade in agricultural produce and fish between the EU and Morocco. The Parliament’s legal service has advised the Commission to clarify whether the trade deal is in line with the wishes of the western Saharawi people, according to a confidential opinion prepared last month, and seen by European Voice. According to Sara Eyckmans at Western Sahara Resource Watch, a campaign group, the EU is obtaining increased quantities of produce from Western Sahara, especially tomatoes, melons and cucumbers.

“Will the EU accept this produce coming from Western Sahara, stamped as ‘from Morocco’?” she asks. “That would be accepting Morocco’s claims, and illegal,” she asserts. A spokesman for Damanaki declined to comment on the details of the fisheries agreement. He said: “A proposal is under construction and is likely to be adopted by the end of the week.”

Jennifer Rankin

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