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EU-Moroccan Relations: The Western Sahara Issue and Democratic Reform

Posted by [email protected] on March 28, 2018 at 8:50 AM

By Hiba Senhaj


The European Court of Justice ruled on February 27 on the very controversial case of the EU-Morocco fishery debate. The most disputed question was the issue of the Western Sahara territory being included in the agreement. The UN regards the Western Sahara was a “non-self-governing territory” and according to international law, Morocco has an illegal occupation of the Western Sahara. The European Court of Justice ruled that the EU-Morocco fisheries agreement “is valid in so far as it is not applicable to Western Sahara and to its adjacent waters. If the territory of Western Sahara were to be included within the scope of the fisheries agreement, that would be contrary to certain rules of general international law.”

The issue of the Polisario Front

The Western Sahara was occupied by the Spanish until 1975, when the colonial power withdrew from the region as a result of Moroccan annexation. This is when the hostilities between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the governing body of the region, began. A year after Spain relinquished control over the Western Sahara territory, the Polisario Front declared themselves an independent region and named their new principality the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The conflict heightened when Mauritania wished for control over the region and went to war with Morocco and against the Polisario Front for 16 years until the UN stepped in to help broker a cease-fire deal between Morocco and the Polisario Front. As a result, Morocco control two-thirds of the land while the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic only controls one-third of the land. Since then there have been two Sahrawi intifada movements that occurred from 1999 until 2004 and in May 2005. The first Sahrawi Intifada solidified the basis of the modern-day independence movement of the Polisario Front from Moroccan occupation. The Independence Intifada broke out in May 2005 where civilians took to the streets to protest against Moroccan occupation in many Moroccan controlled regions in the Western Sahara territory. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic has formal recognition from 37 states and is a member of the African Union, a continental union of African states. Morocco recently re-joined the African Union in 2017 after leaving for thirty-three years as a result of the 1984 African Union decision to recognize the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

What does this mean for Morocco-EU relations for the future?

Morocco, has always been a key strategic and important geopolitical actor in the Maghreb region since the reign of King Hassan II in the late 1980s until now, under his son, the current King Mohammad VI. The major introduction point to this EU-Morocco bilateral agreement started with the Barcelona Declaration in 1995, and fostered and cemented strong diplomatic, political economic and social ties between the European Union (mainly the Southern Mediterranean) and Morocco its Maghreb counterparts. Spain is the closest European country to Morocco, with two Spanish cities, Ceuta and Melilla, on Moroccan soil in the North. To the European Union, migration from Northern and Western Africa is one of the European Union’s biggest security threat and that can be seen with Spain-Morocco relations. Thus, it is in the European Union’s best interest to ensure strong diplomatic relations with Morocco, so European Union interest and security can be safeguarded. There is this theme with EU-Morocco discussions that trade and foreign aid is okay, and EU encourages this, but not migration. There is this trade-off: more trading partners with European states but in return, harsher and stricter border controls. Spain and France even went the extra mile to recognize the legitimacy of Morocco’s illegal settlement in the Western Sahara.

Future for Democratization Efforts in Morocco

The Moroccan government has been accused in the past of mistreatment towards the Sahrawis who reside in the Western Sahara. Post Arab-spring demonstrations in Morocco and throughout the Western Sahara, there has been a huge strategic push from the European Union to maintain stability within Morocco for its strategic purpose but also to push forward democratization efforts towards civil society support and more. Morocco is part of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). The European Neighborhood Policy rests on the assumption that neighbors of the EU who would never become an EU member state could adopt and benefit from aspects of the acquis communautaire, the general, shared morals, principles and values that a country must share to be considered up for membership. Some of these principals included rule of law, democracy, free and fair elections, freedom of religion, press and the media and the maintenance of human rights.

The biggest push towards a brighter democratic future within Morocco via European Union efforts has been the recent 2014-2017 EU-Morocco Bilateral agreement. The bilateral agreement looks at 1) equitable access to basic social services 2) support to democratic governance, the rule of law and mobility 3) jobs, sustainable and inclusive growth. In Morocco, social and human development indicators have improved, but the country’s socio-economic remains with major inequalities and unequal access to basic social services: health, education, water or sanitation. The EU also states that the 2011 constitutional reform created major headway in Morocco’s democratization process, there is still much work needed to be done. Many the reforms haven’t been implemented into law, institutions and daily practice. The EU claims to fully support these reforms and institutions. Lastly, growth rates in last decade for Morocco have been able to translate into a reduction of unemployment and poverty levels. Morocco is negatively affected by Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that were implemented in the failed Union for the Mediterranean. The bilateral agreement claims that EU intervention will assist Morocco in boosting competitiveness of SMEs and reform the vocational training system and employment policies.

It’s been proven time and time again that the strongest asset to Morocco’s limited democratic history is due to the strong civil society organizations that are second best to those in Tunisia, in terms of effectiveness. Every political and economic reform the monarchy has implemented has been because of strong lobbying and protesting from civil society organizations. Activists from all different types of civil society organizations gathered to create the February 20 Movement that allowed for gradual democratic reform through the 2011 Constitutional reform. However, the least amount of money is being allocated to civil society and development


In conclusion, the recent ECJ ruling is a beacon of light for the Polisario Front independence movement, from its inception has been traded from one occupying power another. This ruling makes it illegal for the European Union to recognize the Western Sahara as a part of the Kingdom of Morocco, which the European Union has turned a blind eye towards for key strategic purposed. Nothing can be said for the certainty of EU-Morocco relations to the future, but the European Union understands how much of a key partner Morocco is in regards to security, counterterrorism, fishing, combating migration flows and so much more. This also brings upon the question of democratization efforts of the European Union and the positive effects it hopes to have on maintain a stable and strong ally in the Maghreb region.

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