The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) has declared that trade and liberalization deals signed between the EU and the Kingdom of Morocco were wrongly killed by an earlier decision by the lower General Court and ruled that the Liberalization Agreement was valid. In its press statement, the ECJ also noted that “the Front Polisario is not concerned by the decision of the Council to conclude that agreement. The Court therefore rejects the Front Polisario’s action on the ground of lack of standing.” Morocco’s Foreign Ministry welcomed the overriding of the earlier ruling, stressing that the ECJ had not called into question the “legality and legitimacy of Morocco’s international deals” covering the so-called Moroccan Sahara region.
The court ruling appeared to sidestep a related diplomatic standoff with Morocco that suspended links with Brussels earlier this year after the General Court annulled the Association and Liberalization Agreements in 2015 based on a case filed in 2012 by the Polisario Front that challenged the status of two trade deals between Morocco and the EU. Following the General Court’s decision, the Council, which brings together the EU Member States, appealed against the court’s decision to cancel the deals that have been widely hailed as a way to improve ties with the strategically important North African country. Bilateral trade between the EU and Morocco is worth €37bn a year and 63 percent of Moroccan exports go to the EU. Fisheries are a major part of the mutual trade as Morocco sells fishing rights in its Atlantic waters to EU boats.
The latest ruling did not, however, come as a complete surprise since already in mid September, the ECJ’s Chief Advocate General Melchior Wathelet published an opinion piece in which he argued that the Polisario Front is not a legitimate organization for contesting the Morocco-EU trade agreements and called for the suspension verdict to be overturned – thus effectively paving the way for restoring EU and Morocco ties. Mr. Wathelet also questioned the validity of the group’s right to plea at the ECJ on the grounds that the it is not recognized by the international community as a representative of the commercial interests of the population inhabiting the Western Sahara region, although it is considered as a party in the political process to find a solution to the conflict over the disputed territory. Though not formally binding, opinions and recommendations issued by the ECJ’s advocate generals are followed in 80 percent of the cases by the court.