EU-Morocco Fisheries Deal: Will Morocco’s Firm Position Alter ECJ’s Ruling?

 When judges of the Luxembourg-based ECJ convened on 27 to deliver on the “legality” of EU-Morocco fisheries agreements, the overwhelming majority of European observers and legal experts were of the opinion that ECJ would not make the unwarranted step of meddling into political matters. But not only that: they also thought that ECJ judges would not, could not, possibly make a decision that would arouse the wrath of a strategic partner.


However, on Tuesday this week, deaf to this sea of warnings, and in total disregard of the conclusions of a European Commission-sponsored study, ECJ judges ruled almost in favor of ECJ’s former Advisor General Wathelet Melchior’s early January ‘opinions’ that the EU-Morocco fisheries agreement, as it involves “waters adjacent to Western Sahara”, should be annulled.


In its verdict, the ECJ said that the agreement “is valid in so far as it is not applicable to Western Sahara and adjacent waters.” Which, however intelligent a move to “distance” ECJ from Melchior’s call for annulling the deal, did echo the Belgian’s claim of territorial legitimacy, questioning Morocco’s rights over its southern provinces.


This did not, however, alarm relevant Moroccan authorities who, right after ECJ’s ruling, announced that the Kingdom would reiterate its commitment to its EU partners, and that the ruling would in no manner whatsoever affect the strategic and longstanding partnership between Morocco and the E.U.


“ECJ did not clearly mention a ban,” said Moroccan Minister of agriculture Azziz Akhannouch, later explaining that the two parties, Morocco and the EU, would maintain their relationships. Nasser Bourita, Moroccan minister of foreign affairs, made similar remarks in a recent interview. “Nothing in the ECJ ruling challenges the political legitimacy of Morocco to conclude agreements regarding the Moroccan Sahara with the EU,” he said, adding that the court had distanced itself from the opinions of its Advocate general who had called for the agreement to be annulled.


So, days after ECJ’s obviously biased ruling, Moroccan officials had a different reading, as they chose to tenaciously commit themselves to a relationship which the other party’s highest judicial body was already questioning.


No Sahara, No Deal?


But after what we might now call a period of evaluation and hedging, like a student anxiously considering options of a multiple choice quiz before committing to one, Moroccan officials are now toughening their stance, they seem to have finally located the right option. They are now saying what observers had expected them to say right after the ruling: Morocco is not ready to commit to a partnership that does not respect its territorial integrity.


At a government council on Thursday this week, Moroccan ministers, upon thoroughly evaluating the meaning and potential ramifications of renewing the fisheries deal under the condition that “it is not applicable to Western Sahara and its adjacent waters”, came to the conclusion that any renewed agreement that would not be applicable to Western Sahara is to be declined. In his summary of the government’s position, spokesperson Mustapha EL Khalifi said the government’s position is to only engage with deals and agreements that respect the country’s national integrity. He said that although Morocco is keen on its strategic partnership with the EU, it will allow no one to question or challenge its national borders. So: ‘No Sahara, no deal.’


But what happened? Why now? And can this toughening of Morocco’s position affect subsequent rulings, hence forcing the EU to compromise on its court’s decision?


To be sure, Morocco’s recent move was predictable enough , for anyone with an inch of knowledge of international affairs would know this fundamental truth: although alliances are not particularly binding, failing to satisfy a strategic partner does come with severe consequences. But more importantly, in international politics, “betrayals” have a steeper price when the other party has considerable bargaining power.


And Morocco does have huge bargaining power vis-à-vis its European partners. On terrorism and immigration, for example, the kingdom has been a staunch and indefatigable ally, sharing intelligence and thwarting plans of terrorist attacks targeting European cities. As for the fisheries agreement in question in this particular case, the European Commission acknowledged that the agreement is “vitally important.” “For the EU, the need is to keep an instrument supporting in-depth cooperation with an important player in ocean governance”, said a study initiated by EU’s highest institutional body, concluding that: “For EU shipowners, there is still a need for fishing opportunities in the Morocco fishing zone. This need could even increase given Brexit.”


In Brussels, before the ECJ’s unwarranted verdict on 27 February, the crushing majority of European MPs were forthcoming about how indispensable and crucial Morocco has been in helping Europe face many of its recent challenges. Morocco is not only an economic partner, they said. The Kingdom is, above all else, the EU’s most reliable option to “maintain stability and security” in EU’s southern borders and in large parts of the Mediterranean.


“Given all these positive developments,” a member of the European parliament wrote prior to the ECJ’s verdict, “the strategic partnership between the EU and Morocco, which started as early as 1960, should not be undermined by certain lobbying groups, willing to use the existing legal void to act against the Union’s best interests.”


But we’re long passed that. The verdict has been delivered. Which leaves the Kingdom with only one effective move: make it abundantly clear to the EU that alliances in international affairs are like personal relationships: betrayals have consequences.


Now, that does not mean shutting the EU off or boycotting any prospects of return to normalcy (the old terms of the agreement). Rather, what it means is that Moroccan officials should—as they have already started—let the EU know that they have no intention of sitting at a biased negotiation table. Or, asI said in a recent piece, Morocco, however affected by any prospects of escalations of hostilities with the EU, can turn to other partners (China, for example) for the exploitation of its stupendous sea products. As for Europe, losing Morocco’s partnership, and at this particularly crisis-laden time, would be akin to self-immolation.


This is no rocket science. In fact, it is an elementary principle of international relations. It is called reciprocity: “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Moroccan officials should make sure that their EU counterparts understand that.

By Tamba François Koundouno