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Africa

MEPs call for change in Moroccan fishing rights agreement

media A protest camp on the outskirts of Western Sahara's main city, Laayoune Youssef Boudlal / Reuters

The European Union's rights to fish in the waters off the disputed territory of the Western Sahara is up for debate before its renewal early next year.The lucrative 36 million-euro deal with Morocco gives the EU the right to fish off the waters of the Western Sahara.

Morocco has no sovereignty over the Western Sahara territory. EU legal briefs have deemed the agreement illegal. The 2007 EU-Moroccan Fisheries Agreement does not stipulate the southern boundaries of the fishing area. Evidence shows that  European boats have been fishing in Western Sahara waters, which is under Moroccan occupation.

Morocco annexed the territory of the Western Sahara in 1975, after Spain pulled out of the colony. It shares a common border with the south of Morocco. The pro-independence Polisario Front, representing the Sahrawi people, fought against Morocco until 1991, when the United Nations brokered a cease-fire. Many of the Sahrawi people fled and now live in camps in southwestern Algeria.

Eva Joly, MEP (Europe Ecologie, France). 18/11/2010 - by Laura Angela Bagnetto Listen
Ivo Vejgl, MEP (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Slovenia) 18/11/2010 - by Laura Angela Bagnetto Listen
Francesco Bastagli, senior advisor at the Institute for International Political Studies, Milan 18/11/2010 - by Laura Angela Bagnetto Listen

"Whatever Morocco is doing in Western Sahara is illegal. Morocco is an occupying power, and however they try to impose their sovereignty there is a breach of international law. It is simply illegal," says Ivo Vejgl, a member of European Parliament (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Slovenia).

Sahrawi who have remained in the Western Sahara live under repressive conditions. Money from the 36 million-euro-per-year fisheries deal should go to aid those in the disputed territory, according to MEP Eva Joly (Europe Ecologie, France).

"International law says that the money coming from this business should benefit the Sahrawi people. The Commission has not been able to give us examples that this is true. And if this is not true, which we are sure of, then this convention is illegal. The EU cannot make a convention in violation of international law," Joly tells RFI on the sidelines of an informal seminar on the issue in Brussels.

The European Union asked Morocco for documentation regarding this issue in February 2010, but the Moroccan government has not given a response.

"The Development Commission is going to give an opinion on this convention and  we will ask for the Sahrawi waters to be excluded from the fishing agreement," says Joly, who is also the head of the European Parliament Development Commission.

The agreement is up for renewal in February 2011, but MEPs against the agreement are already gearing up for a debate in parliament.

Some indicate that apathy on the part of the European community enabled the passage of the fishing rights agreement.

"Although Morocco has no right to the territorial waters of a territory it occupies illegally is well-known, yet the agreement went forward," says Francesco Bastagli, a senior advisor at the Institute for International Political Studies in Milan, and a former UN Special Representative for Western Sahara.

The deal is not the problem, but the lack of boundaries is, according to activists.

"I don't see any problem with having an agreement with Morocco, because, of course there needs to be relations between the two, of course it matters for EU fishing vessels, but what really frustrates me is their vessels fishing in the occupied waters of the Western Sahara," says Saniya Bashir Abdurrahman, a Sahrawi graduate student.

Experts say that increased awareness of the situation in the Western Sahara may change the renewal vote next year, or at least the deal.

"I am fairly confident that if the agreement is renewed next year the European Union, in all likelihood, will not extend it to the waters of the Western Sahara," says Bastagli. In other words, there will be a clause that these waters will be excluded.

But this might void the need for a fisheries agreement, according to John Gurr from the Western Sahara Campaign rights organisation.

"The legal majority of the catch under the fisheries agreement comes from the waters off the Western Sahara," Gurr told RFI.

For now, EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki has called on Morocco to provide information on how the monies from the EU agreement is aiding the Sahrawi. Further movement on the renewal is stalled until this information is obtained.

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