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UN peace talks on Western Sahara pointless without EU pressure on Morocco: watchdog

Leader of the Sahrawi delegation and Frente Polisario Khatri Addouh at press briefing after 2 days of UN-brokered talks F. Coffrini/AFP

Although UN-brokered peace talks this week between the disputed territory of Western Sahara and Morocco have been hailed as an important development in dealing with the conflict, a watchdog group on Western Sahara says there is no point without including the issue of European Union (EU) trade deals in the mix.

EU trade deals with Morocco, which will be voted upon on Monday, have been marred by the reported bias by the French MEP head of committee.

“As long as Morocco is scoring political points and can attract the EU in dealing with EU products, it’s useless to conduct peace talks with Morocco,” says Erik Hagen, the Executive Director of Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW), a watchdog umbrella organization that looks into companies working in Western Sahara.

Hagen was referring to approval late last month by the EU Competitiveness Council for the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement (SFPA) between Morocco and the EU that applies to fishing in the waters off the coast of Western Sahara.

Western Sahara is the world’s largest disputed territory, which has been occupied by Morocco since 1975.

SFPA approval

Western Sahara fought Morocco until a UN-brokered cease-fire in 1991 when a referendum for independence was proposed. No referendum has ever been held.

The SFPA approval by the EU ministers goes against the 2016 legal opinion of the European Court of Justice which states that Western Sahara is not part of the Moroccan territory, so EU-Moroccan trade agreements should not apply to the disputed territory.

The Frente Polisario, the self-appointed Western Sahara government-in-exile, issued a statement on Thursday about the UN-brokered talks, the first since 2012, but pointed out that the EU is undermining the UN peace process by continuing to sign off on trade agreements with Morocco.

“We are therefore deeply concerned by the EU Commission’s sustained, illegal and uncompromising efforts to secure trade deals with Morocco which include the territory of Western Sahara in violation of the rulings of the European Court of Justice,” the Polisario said in a statement.

“Such an approach, which clearly preempts and undermines the outcome of negotiations, defies logic,” it added.

French MEP's input

Next Monday, the EU International Trade (INTA) Committee will vote on EU trade deals with Morocco, which include fishing permits, phosphate and other mineral extraction, along with goods such as tomatoes.

The vote will be based on a report written by French MEP Patricia Lalonde, the rapporteur and head of the committee. Lalonde led the two-day fact-finding mission to the Western Sahara in September 2018.

According to analysis and interviews on the ground conducted by watchdog WSRW, “nearly 80 percent of [Lalonde’s] programme has been spent on meeting Moroccan interlocutors or with actors that have a direct (economic or political) interest

"Nearly 80 percent of [Lalonde’s] programme has been spent on meeting Moroccan interlocutors or with actors that have a direct (economic or political) interest. Only 20 percent of the interlocutors could be suspected to potentially having opposing views – and they are granted but 9 percent of the mission report. A meager result for a fact-finding mission.”

French MEP plays a role in upcoming vote next week

Another investigation was carried out by independent EU news website, EUobserver, which found that Lalonde was a board member of EuroMedA Foundation, which also boasts former Moroccan ministers and politicians in its membership. The foundation is not listed as a lobby group with the EU.

Lalonde is currently under investigation for a possible code of conduct breach after stepping down from the foundation.

Green Party parliamentarians have protested the upcoming vote on Monday in reaction to the investigation.

EU parliament Vice President, Heidi Hautala, a Finnish Green MEP, said on Thursday that she will be boycotting the vote and suspend work on the trade agreement. A number of members of her party and the European Free Alliance party will do the same.