European judges concluded two trade and fisheries agreements between the EU and Morocco, in a victory for fighters who argued that the union had not obtained permission from the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
EU General Court on Wednesday cancelled a 2019 trade agreement and a fisheries agreement that would enable Morocco to export agricultural goods to Europe from the resource-rich region of Western Sahara, over which Rabat had long claimed sovereignty.
But the Western Sahara independence movement, known as the Polisario Front, has launched a legal challenge to the deal, arguing that it should not automatically extend to the region. The Luxembourg court ruled in favor of the movement on Wednesday and ruled that the EU governments did not obtain sufficient consent from the people of Western Sahara when they ratified the deals.
“The steps taken by the EU authorities prior to the conclusion of the relevant agreements cannot be considered as the consent of the people of Western Sahara,” the court said. It adds, however, that the annulment would not take effect immediately, allowing both parties to appeal against the decision.
Oubi Bachir, the envoy of the Polisario Front to the EU, said the court ruling was a “historic verdict” and “a victory for the Sahrawi through European justice”. Rabat declined to comment.
The annulment is a blow to EU-Morocco relations and comes after European judges ruled in 2018 that a previous fisheries agreement could not apply to Western Sahara. The EU is Morocco’s largest trading partner, with almost two – thirds of the country’s exports sold in the block.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, said the bloc was committed to pursuing a stable trade relationship with Morocco despite the sentence. “We remain fully mobilized to continue EU-Morocco cooperation,” Borrell said in a joint statement issued with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.
The EU and Morocco agreed in 2019 to amend a range of preferential tariffs for products of Moroccan origin, together with an agreement allowing EU vessels to fish in Moroccan and Western Sahara waters. Last year, the commission issued a report stating that the agreement ‘offers benefits to Western Sahara and its people in terms of exports, economic activity and employment’.
“The General Court regards the Front as the representative of the Sahara people who can consequently take legal action in European courts to defend the sovereign rights of their people,” Bachir said.
After a 30-year ceasefire, fighting resumes last year between the Polisario Front and Morocco, following Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Rabat’s claims on Western Sahara in exchange for the kingdom normalizing relations with Israel. Tensions have since risen in the form of hit-and-run attacks and long-range shootings by Polisario against Moroccan units along the sandbank that separates the two sides.