Court invalidates EU fish trade deal with Morocco

Published on
October 5, 2021
A Moroccan fisherman inspects his catch. A trade deal between the European Union and Morocco has been invalidated by a court decision.

The E.U. General Court, a constituent court of the Court of Justice of the European Union, has invalidated a decision by the European Council to approve a deal to amend the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement between the E.U. and Morocco to include territory under the contested Western Sahara region.

The invalidation of the revised fish trade deal was the culmination of a 2019 suit filed in the court by Polisario Front, a rebel national liberation movement by the Sahrawi people claiming the Western Sahara – a region previously controlled by Spain and Mauritania – which argued consent of the population in the contested region had not been sought before the approval of a decision by both the E.U. and Morocco to amend the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement.

“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.

The court also determined the Polisario Front is directly concerned with the disputed decisions of the E.U. and Morocco as a representative of the people of Western Sahara, and as one of the parties engaged in the drive towards the self-determination process of the disputed territory.

Two previous court rulings – in December 2016 and February 2018 – had clarified the fisheries-focused trade deal initially signed before the July 2019 version, but did not apply to the semi-autonomous region, leading to the decision by the E.U. and Morocco in 2019 to amend the agreement to include the Western Sahara.

“Neither the fisheries agreement nor the protocol thereto are applicable to the waters adjacent to the territory of Western Sahara,” the previous court rulings clarified.

The current E.U. and Morocco sustainable fisheries partnership agreement, with a four-year monetary value of EUR 208 million (USD 241 million), took effect on 18 July 2019, and is automatically renewed. The first implementing protocol of the agreement has a duration of four years, covering the period 18 July, 2019, to 17 July, 2023.

The monetary gain for Morocco include access rights, sectoral support from the E.U. and additional contributions from fishing-vessel owners.

At least 128 E.U. vessels coming from Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, and United Kingdom have been allowed to fish in Morocco's exclusive economic zone under the partnership.

The Polisario Front has argued the E.U. infringed its obligations concerning its relations with Morocco under international law by entering into a fish deal with the North African country “without the consent of the people of Western Sahara."

However, the General Court said the invalidation of the fish trade deal does not come into effect immediately “since annulling them with immediate effect could have serious consequences on the European Union’s external action and call into doubt legal certainty in respect of the international commitments to which it has agreed.”

It said an appeal, “limited to points of law only, may be brought before the Court of Justice against the decision of the General Court within two months and 10 days of notification of the decision.”  

Photo courtesy of the Food and Agriculture Organisation 

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