In Western Sahara, Europe sides with occupier over occupied

The European Parliament has backed a controversial trade agreement with Morocco that includes the occupied Western Sahara within its remit. Has Europe prioritized ‘securing’ its borders over human rights? Ruairi Casey reports.

A Polisario official points at an image of the first victim of violence at the Gdeim Izik protest camp in 2010/Credit: Ruairi Casey

Shops in the Tindouf refugee camps in western Algeria are sparsely-stocked, but customers can choose from several varieties of sardines, each in brightly coloured tins.

The fish are caught by Algerian trawlers in the Mediterranean Sea and transported over 1,000 kilometres to the edge of the Sahara desert, where around 170,000 Sahrawi refugees have lived since fleeing their homeland of Western Sahara. In 1975, the Kingdom of Morocco violently invaded and partly annexed the territory. 

No other country recognises Morocco’s sovereignty over the coastal territory. But in February the European parliament approved a new fisheries deal with Morocco, which included the waters of Western Sahara, whose abundant fisheries provide around 90 per cent of the European catch in Moroccan-controlled waters. It followed the passage of a similar agriculture deal in January.

For the indigenous Sahrawi people of Western Sahara, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. The EU, they say, has effectively endorsed the violation of their political and human rights.

Fragile peace

The Polisario Front, the liberation movement of the Sahrawi people, has called the fisheries deal illegal and said it undermines Western Sahara’s fragile peace process. The timing of its passage was significant. The vote was held, in January 2019, weeks before a second round of rare face-to-face talks between Morocco and the Polisario, as the UN attempts to revive its mission to deliver a referendum to determine the future of Western Sahara.

The promise of a referendum was the basis of the 1991 ceasefire that ended 16 years of fighting, but Morocco has refused to hold a vote, spending the intervening years expanding its control over Western Sahara, where Moroccan settlers are now believed to outnumber indigenous Sahrawis.

The US, spearheaded by national security adviser John Bolton, who once served as assistant to UN Western Sahara envoy James Baker in the late 90s and is believed to have pro-Polisario sympathies, has been ratcheting pressure on Morocco to reach a final settlement. But the EU has taken a back seat role in efforts to resolve the impasse and Morocco retains the unwavering support of France on the Security Council.

In Brussels, MEPs voted by 444 to 167 to approve the four-year fisheries deal, which will see the EU pay €208 million in exchange for trawling rights for 10 members states in Moroccan-controlled waters. This is despite several European Court of Justice rulings since 2016 which have consistently held that Western Sahara is not a part of Morocco and cannot be included in any such agreement without the consent of the Sahrawi people. Nor were parliamentarians swayed by the resignation of French MEP Patricia Lalonde as lead on the deal, after her links to Moroccan lobbyists were revealed.

The parliament, in a statement, denied the agreement prejudiced the peace process and said it ‘fully supports UN efforts to find a political solution which allows the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara’. Morocco and the EU claimed Sahrawis in the occupied territory has consented to the deal, but the Polisario announced it would bring a case to the ECJ to annul it.

‘The ECJ has ruled that the only legal route is obtaining the consent of the people,’ the Polisario said in April. ‘We are deeply concerned that European leaders have instead taken up the old colonialist stance, believing that their action “brings benefits to the population” without ever seeking the Sahrawi people's consent.’

The day the vote passed, French MEP and chair of the parliament’s fisheries committee Alain Cadec grinned and gave a spirited thumbs up to his colleagues in the chamber. Over dinner in the refugee camps in Algeria a few days later, a young activist showed me a picture of Cadec’s celebration on her phone, his gleeful expression the very opposite of her own.

Western Sahara’s fisheries and mineral reserves would make it a prosperous nation, she said, so why should Sahrawis be dependent on handouts [EU aid to the refugee camps in Algeria] while others profit from their wealth? The answer has little to do with fish.

Credit: Wikicommons

Border politics

Morocco’s interior ministry said it prevented 89,000 illegal crossings to Spain last year, making it the number one departure point in North Africa for migrants seeking to enter Europe, either by climbing the razor wire fences that guard the Spanish exclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, or risking the narrow strait that separates Morocco from the Spanish coastline in rubber dinghies.

The EU paid Morocco €148 million in 2018 to support border management, by which it hopes to repeat its successes elsewhere in stemming migration flows. Its six-billion euro migration deal with Turkey has secured a 97 per cent reduction in irregular migration on the eastern route into Europe, and successful crossings through the central Mediterranean, mainly from Libya, have decreased by 80 per cent as EU-funded coastguard ships ‘intercept’ and ‘return’ migrant vessels.

Morocco itself has not been shy about using its leverage on migration, and made barely veiled threats after the ECJ ruled in December 2016 that the existing EU-Morocco agriculture deal was not applicable to Western Sahara.

‘How [does the EU] want us to do the job of blocking African and even Moroccan emigration if Europe does not want to work with us?’ Moroccan Minister of Agriculture Aziz Akhnnouch told Spanish press agency EFE in February 2017. Many observers see the backing of the trade agreement is a quid pro quo in return for Morocco’s work in blocking migration.

A few days before the vote, I met with Mohammed Sidati, the Polisario’s ambassador to the EU, in a modestly-decorated embassy in central Brussels.

Sidati spoke slowly, sounding fatigued. ‘The founding principles of the European Union are democracy and human rights,’ he said. ‘They are violating or undermining these important values, but from another side they are ignoring the case of a small people… struggling for the same value.’

Sadati has spent the last 16 years representing Sahrawis in Brussels. The inevitable passing of the trade agreement was no surprise to him – going up against business interests and border politics, especially those of EU heavyweights Spain and France, he knew the Polisario’s complaints would fall on deaf ears.

I accompanied Sidati as he walked towards an appointment at the EU Parliament building, stopping at one point as his voice betrayed a hint of anguish. How could the Polisario continue to keep young Sahrawis away from armed struggle against Morocco, he asked, when peace has brought them so little?