Ever since the year 1972, the European community has underlined the importance of honouring its commitments towards the countries of the Mediterranean basin with which it has concluded, and is to conclude, agreements as part of a comprehensive and balanced approach. Negotiations with the three countries of the Maghreb led in 1976 to the conclusion of cooperation agreements drawing on article 238 of the Treaty of European Economic Community which stipulates: «The Community may conclude with one or more States or international organizations agreements establishing an association involving reciprocal rights and obligations, common action and special procedures». The eventual evolution of the relations between the European Union and the Maghreb countries, as part of a renovated Mediterranean Policy or of the European Neighbourhood Policy, has led the European Union to establish a partnership-based cooperation (Association Agreements) resting on four components; namely: political dialogue, economic cooperation, social and cultural cooperation, and financial cooperation. Taken together, these components will eventually contribute to the establishment of the free trade zone.

This brief survey of the relations between the European Union and the Maghreb leads us to ask about the place granted by European diplomacy to the Sahara conflict? And what sort of relations with the Polisario? In this sense, the conventional activity of the European Union shows that the Polisario Front does not enjoy any recognition by the major regional bloc, the EU, on the one hand, and that this bloc is primarily concerned with the humanitarian aspects of the Sahara conflict, on the other.

I. The Action of the European Union Is not Meant to Recognize the Polisario Front

During the fifth session of the EU-Morocco Association Council, the EU solemnly declared that the Sahara conflict remains a major obstacle in the path towards more regional stability, cooperation and prosperity. While the Organization of African Union, now the African Union, accepted to grant membership to the Polisario in 1984, the European Union does not open up any possibility for dealing with Polisario as a partner. During the first Africa-Europe Summit, (April 2000/Cairo (Egypt), Algeria, under European pressures, was compelled to abandon its project concerning the declaration of Polisario as a State. The second Africa-Europe summit due to be held in Lisbon (Portugal) on 8 December 2007 is likely to witness the same trends commonly noted regarding Algerian foreign policy (i.e. the unconditional support granted to the Polisario). In fact, there are fundamental contradictions in the Algerian strategy which leaves us rather perplexed as to the logical and coherent attitudes of the EU policy in the Maghreb.

Through a bilateral and multilateral conventional action, the EU has broadly defined the objectives of its policy in the Maghreb region. Under its approach to partnership with the Maghreb region, the EU considers that its member States and the Maghreb States share responsibilities in terms of stability, security and prosperity for the whole Euro-Mediterranean bloc. Partners underscored the importance of relations within a global Euro-Mediterranean framework, and the objective of bringing about integration between the Maghreb countries (Preamble of the Association Agreements).

The objective of Maghrebi integration through the stimulation of cooperation between the States of the region is likely to promote peace and stability in the region (first article of the Association Agreements). In the same spirit, political dialogue established by the Euro-Med partnership «shall cover all subjects of common interest, and shall aim to open the way to new forms of cooperation with a view to common goals, in particular peace, security, human rights, democracy and regional development, particularly in the Maghreb region». (Article 4). In partnership relations, political dialogue and cooperation are mainly designed to «consolidate security and stability in the Mediterranean region and the Maghreb, in particular». (Article 2)

These principles and objectives, which similarly apply to the three States of the Maghreb, constitute therefore a basis for common action which in no case recognizes the Polisario, and all the more its formation as a State named "the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic".

The issue of recognition carries implications on the relations between the European Union and the Polisario. The conclusion of the Fishing Agreement between the European Union and Morocco in July 2005 came under considerable criticism from the Polisario. The latter claims its sovereignty over the territorial waters of the Sahara. Yet the stance of the European Union remained the same: Morocco is always recognized by the European Union as the sovereign authority running Sahara.

The European Union has proposed an autonomous statute for the Sahara region in the like of the German Länder. Support to the Moroccan autonomy statute by Europe in general, and France and Spain, in particular, - the Moroccan Initiative to Negotiate Granting Autonomy to the Sahara Region, which was submitted on April 11, 2007 to the UN Secretary-General-, translates the European Union's willingness to find a just, durable and mutually accepted political settlement of the Sahara conflict.

This European approach, which Algeria refuses to adhere to, poses the problem of compatibility between the international commitment and the practice of States to preserve security and regional stability. How can such stability be perceived within an environment of bilateral political tensions? The Union of the Arab Maghreb, an institution that has remained inactive due to the conflicts between two of its member States, illustrates well the fiasco of Maghreban integration. The Algerian support to the Polisario lays bare the contradictions underlying the Algerian attitude. The commitments of Algeria towards the European Union and its constant support to a movement that threatens regional stability completely defies the logic of the Euro-Med dialogue which seeks to shape up in the Mediterranean a space for peace, stability and security, as articulated by the new European neighbourhood policy.

II. The EU Action is directed to the Humanitarian Aspects of the Camps of Moroccan Detainees in Tindouf 

The Human rights situation in the camps placed under the authority of Algeria and the Polisario has not ceased to give cause for concern to the European Union. By granting 1 million Euros, in the form of food assistance and basic foodstuffs, to the detainees, whom the separatist organization transformed into "refugees," the European Union comes as the first provider of aid to this population through the European Community Humanitarian Office. The embezzlement of humanitarian aid destined to the confined populations, however, has caused the European Union in 2003 to reduce its contribution by more than half. The reports conducted by the inspection offices of the UNHCR and the WFP have revealed many anomalies in the organization and distribution of aid.

In this respect, the figure of 165 000 persons, which was declared by Algeria, proved to be greatly exaggerated, which explains why inspectors had to recommend the reduction of that figure to 90 000 persons eligible to benefit from the humanitarian aid in the camps.

The degradation of Human rights in the Tindouf camps has been underlined by several associations and NGOs. The independent investigation commission pointed to alleged violations of Human rights abuses, as well as the embezzlement of humanitarian aid by the Polisario. In its report, the Commission calls on the United Nations and the European Union to investigate into the violations against Human rights in Tindouf. Likewise, it has appealed to NGOs active in the fields of Human rights as well as to independent investigation commissions to work in that sense, and to set up a process to control humanitarian aid destined to the confined populations.

At the level of the EU member States, this question is drumming up interest among many European parliamentarians. A recent report by the British House of Representatives shed light on the misdirection of humanitarian aid destined to the detainees in the Tindouf camps. Similarly, the investigation report presided over by a liberal Belgian Parliamentarian and submitted to the fourth UN Commission draws attention of the international community to the disdain of Human rights in the camps of Shame.

If the Polisario has hundreds of associations across European countries, it is important, the report underlines, that the representatives of these countries should be fully aware of the testimonies of victims accusing the Polisario of committing violations of basic Human rights. The report dramatically portrays the situation of child rights which runs counter to the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. The whole matter converges towards the need to reconsider the provision of humanitarian aid for the benefit of the Saharawi populations confined in the Tindouf camps, and ensuring their access to food, health and education.

In conclusion, if the EU intervention in the Sahara conflict is restricted to humanitarian actions, it is because the EU avoids interference in the affairs of some countries, given the fact that it considers them (the Maghreb countries) combined as an interdependent, complementary bloc.

Moreover, the EU is seeking to make of the Maghreb, as a regional bloc and not as separate countries, - the bilateral agreements having demonstrated their limitations-, a first key partner in the economic and political aspects of the association as well as in its security aspects. As a result, the EU seeks first and foremost to stabilize the Mediterranean region, mainly by striving to defuse tension in hotspots.

It is within this framework that the Moroccan Project on granting autonomy to the Sahara region, which is likely to definitively defuse the atmosphere of tension which hovers over the whole region, has had broad support at the European level. The European approach in this sense does not rely on considerations that tend to favour one party at the detriment of another. Rather, it primarily seeks to encourage the peaceful cohabitation between the Maghrebi States, which will allow them to express themselves as a sub-regional bloc, one that is capable enough to rise to the challenges imposed at the international level.

Abdelmounaim Elgueddari
Professor at the Faculty of Rabat-Souissi