Since the resumption of hostilities between Morocco and the separatist Polisario Front in Western Sahara in November 2020, the EU has hesitated to play an active role in the conflict.
But a recent ruling by the EU Court of Justice against the inclusion of Western Sahara in the EU-Morocco trade deal could soon force Brussels into the fray.
Rather than attempting to circumvent the verdict, as it did in 2018, the EU should seize this opportunity to review its policy on Western Sahara and start leveraging its economic influence to push both sides to resume negotiations and find a mutually acceptable solution.
Since 1975, Morocco and the Polisario have been locked in a conflict over Western Sahara. While the fighting ended in 1991 with a UN-brokered ceasefire, diplomatic efforts failed to find a permanent solution.
After a long standoff, tensions escalated again in November 2020 after the Polisario blocked a main road crossing the Guerguerat area of the disputed territory.
The kingdom responded by sending its troops to lift the blockade and the Front quickly resumed its attacks on Moroccan troops. Despite the collapse of the ceasefire, the UN has been very slow to respond. It was only last month that he decided to appoint a new special envoy, veteran diplomat Staffan de Mistura, who is now due to resume talks between the two sides.
Europe has reason to worry about the deterioration of the situation in its neighborhood. In mid-May, Morocco reportedly encouraged thousands to cross the border into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, which was suddenly overwhelmed by an unprecedented influx of mostly Moroccan migrants (Rabat denies having done so).
This decision was apparent in retaliation for Madrid’s reception of Polisario chief Brahim Ghali, who needed urgent medical treatment for a serious case of Covid-19.
Morocco has also suspended all diplomatic contacts with its German ambassador and called him back to protest Berlin’s attempts at the end of 2020 to raise the issue of Western Sahara at the UN Security Council, where Rabat fears it will to be critical.
In the meantime, the conflict has also had repercussions within the EU.
For almost a decade, EU-Morocco trade relations have been at the center of a long-standing legal struggle. In November 2012, the Polisario challenged the agricultural and fisheries liberalization agreement that the EU and Morocco had signed a few weeks earlier.
Four years later, the EU Court of Justice ruled against the inclusion of the disputed area in this agreement, stressing that Western Sahara has a “separate and distinct status” and cannot be legally included in it. agreement only with the explicit consent of its population.
Morocco’s reaction has been uncompromising, freezing all diplomatic contacts with the EU for several weeks to mark its dissatisfaction with the court’s ruling.
This convinced the Europeans to try to circumvent the ruling, implicitly signaling that it placed more importance on the bilateral trade relationship with Morocco than on its own adherence to the court ruling and the rule of law.
In 2018, the EU and Morocco amended the agreement to explicitly extend it to Western Sahara on the basis of consultations that European diplomats had carried out with political, economic and civil society actors who were mostly pro-Rabat on the issue. territory in order to claim to have received the consent of the local population.
These changes clearly did not influence the tribunal.
In a new decision of September 29, 2021, he again invalidated the inclusion of Western Sahara in the agreement. Brussels and Rabat appeared determined to preserve the contested deal.
On November 6, King Mohamed VI warned that “Morocco will never engage in any economic or commercial transaction … in which the Moroccan Sahara is not included”, alluding to the verdict, while on November 19, the Council of the EU decided to appeal the decision.
This decision gives the EU a new opportunity to recalibrate its position and start using its economic leverage to encourage Morocco and the Polisario to resume negotiations.
The conflict has an economic dimension that has been underestimated. Inside Rabat-held Western Sahara, Morocco has garnered local elite support for its policies by granting them monopoly trade licenses and other benefits in various sectors, including agriculture and fisheries.
These pro-Rabat leaders have become more and more entrenched, standing in the way of change.
Meanwhile, much of the local population is frustrated with a status quo that has failed to provide the jobs and housing they need. Likewise, in the Polisario-controlled refugee camps in Algeria, the frustration of young people at the diplomatic impasse and the demand for better socio-economic conditions have played a major role in the recent escalation.
The EU should use the carrot and the stick to encourage these constituencies, as well as Morocco and the Polisario, to soften their positions and engage in diplomacy.
Brussels should not only comply with the court ruling by reintroducing quotas and tariffs on products and fish from Western Sahara, but could use it to put pressure on the elites who are among the main beneficiaries of the status quo to quit ‘they abandon their opposition to a possible compromise.
Withdrawing Western Sahara products from the deal would increase the cost of the diplomatic standoff.
While Rabat would likely retaliate diplomatically, the EU could argue that it abides by a binding legal rule and invoke its policy of differentiation towards Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as a precedent.
At the same time, the EU could bring Morocco and the Polisario back to the negotiations by proposing to create an international trust fund for Western Sahara that would only be activated in the event of a mutually acceptable compromise.
The resources needed to promote job creation and the construction of infrastructure for a population of less than one million would be relatively inexpensive for the EU, which could also ask the United States, the International Monetary Fund , the World Bank and the African Development Bank to participate.
The fund is expected to focus on financing the creation of jobs and affordable housing to address two of the main concerns of the local population and assist with the resettlement of refugees in Western Sahara.
It could also reassure local elites of their political and economic survival in the event of a transition to new political arrangements following negotiations. It could also encourage parts of the Sahrawi population in Western Sahara and young people in the camps who oppose a resumption of talks to drop their opposition.
These incentives could reverse the recent escalation of tensions and encourage Morocco and the Polisario to resume negotiations. The EU could explicitly support De Mistura’s efforts.
The new envoy is expected to aim to relaunch the format of the 2018-19 roundtable, which included Morocco, the Polisario, as well as Algeria and Mauritania as observers.
He is expected to ask both parties to submit a revised version of their respective conflict resolution plans: the Rabat Autonomy Plan (which would delegate powers to Western Sahara while keeping it under Moroccan sovereignty) and the Morocco Settlement Plan. UN in 1991, based on a referendum on independence that the Polisario would like to revive. Once updated, these plans could form the basis for the next round of talks.
The Western Sahara conflict has already had repercussions on the EU and its member states and these could intensify further in the coming months if the situation continues to deteriorate.
By leveraging its economic influence on the conflict, the EU would not only abide by its own rules and support De Mistura’s efforts to resume negotiations, but it could also contain an increasingly dangerous situation near its borders.