The EU should exert economic Influence on Western Sahara for peace

The EU has been hesitant to play an active role in the crisis in Western Sahara since hostilities between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front restarted in November 2020.

However, a recent EU Court of Justice judgment that Western Sahara should not be included in the EU-Morocco trade treaty may force Brussels to intervene.

Rather than attempting to overturn the ruling, as it did in 2018, the EU should take advantage of this chance to rethink its Western Sahara policy and begin using its economic influence to pressure both sides to continue the dialogue and reach a mutually acceptable solution.

Morocco and the Polisario Front have been at odds over Western Sahara since 1975. While fighting ceased in 1991 as a result of an UN-mediated truce, diplomatic efforts to find a permanent solution have failed.

Tensions rose again in November 2020 as the Polisario blocked a vital road through the disputed territory’s Guerguerat district, after a considerable period of deadlock.

The Front quickly began its attacks on Moroccan troops after the monarchy replied by sending troops to relieve the siege. Despite the ceasefire’s breakdown, the UN took a long time to respond. It only moved to nominate a new special envoy last month, the seasoned diplomat Staffan de Mistura, who is now charged with reopening negotiations between the two parties.

The deteriorating situation in Europe’s neighborhood is a reason for alarm. Morocco is accused of encouraging thousands of individuals to cross the border into Ceuta, a Spanish exclave that was unexpectedly overwhelmed by an extraordinary influx of largely Moroccan migrants in mid-May.

The move appeared to be in reprisal for Madrid’s hosting of Polisario leader BrahimGhali, who required immediate medical attention due to a severe case of Covid-19.

Morocco has also cut all diplomatic relations with Germany and summoned its ambassador in protest over Berlin’s plans to raise the Western Sahara issue at the UN Security Council in late 2020, where Rabat fears it would face criticism.

Meanwhile, the war has had implications within the European Union.

The EU-Morocco economic relationship has been at the center of a long-running judicial battle for nearly a decade. In November 2012, the Polisario launched a legal challenge to the EU-Morocco agriculture and fisheries liberalization deal, which had only been signed a few weeks before.

Four years later, the European Court of Justice ruled against Western Sahara’s inclusion in the accord, stating that the disputed territory has a separate and distinct character that could only be properly included in the pact with the explicit assent of its people.

Morocco’s response was abrasive, with the country suspending all diplomatic relations with the EU for many weeks to express its dissatisfaction with the court’s judgment.

This persuaded the Europeans to try to go around the judgment, implying that the bilateral trading relationship with Morocco was more important to them than their own commitment to the court’s decision and the rule of law.

On the basis of talks European diplomats had conducted with largely pro-Rabat political, economic, and civil society actors in the region, the EU and Morocco revised the deal in 2018 to explicitly extend it to Western Sahara, claiming to have secured the support of the local population.The court was evidently not swayed by these amendments.

Western Sahara’s involvement in the treaty was once again nullified in a new judgment issued on September 29, 2021. Brussels and Rabat appeared to be dedicated to keeping the difficult agreement intact.

On November 6, King Mohamed VI warned that Morocco would never engage in any economic or commercial transaction that did not involve the Moroccan Sahara, alluding to the verdict, while the EU Council resolved to appeal the decision on November 19.

This judgment provides the EU with a new opportunity to reposition itself and begin using its economic might to persuade Morocco and the Polisario to resume dialogue.

The economic impact of the battle has been underappreciated. Morocco has won the favor of local elites in Rabat-controlled Western Sahara by awarding them monopolistic business licenses and other benefits in a variety of areas, including agriculture and fishing. These pro-Rabat leaders have grown increasingly entrenched, making reform difficult.

Meanwhile, a sizable portion of the local population is dissatisfied with the existing quo, which has failed to provide them with the jobs and housing they require. Similarly, in Algeria’s Polisario-controlled refugee camps, youth discontent with the diplomatic stalemate and demands for better socio-economic conditions have fueled the latest escalation.

To urge these groups, as well as Morocco and the Polisario, to soften their attitudes and engage in dialogue, the EU should deploy carrots and sticks.

Brussels should not only follow the court’s verdict by restoring quotas and taxes on Western Saharan produce and fish, but it should also use it to persuade the status quo’s key beneficiaries to remove their opposition to a possible solution.

Removing Western Sahara produce from the agreement would increase the price of the diplomatic impasse.

While Rabat is likely to retaliate politically, the EU could argue that it is adhering to a binding legal judgment, citing its policy of difference between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as precedent.

At the same time, the EU might persuade Morocco and the Polisario to resume talks by promising to set up an international trust fund for Western Sahara that would only be triggered if both parties reached an agreement.

The EU might urge the US, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank to help with the resources needed to support job creation and infrastructure development for a population of fewer than one million people.

To address two of the local population’s key concerns, the fund should focus on financing job development and affordable housing, as well as assisting in the resettling of refugees in Western Sahara.

It could also reassure local elites of their political and economic survival if negotiations result in a transition to new political arrangements. It could also persuade those elements of the Sahrawi population in Western Sahara and the youth in the camps who are opposed to negotiations resuming to change their minds.

These incentives could help to de-escalate current tensions and persuade Morocco and the Polisario to resume talks. De Mistura’s initiatives might be expressly supported by the EU.

The new envoy should try to bring back the roundtable format from 2018-19, which included Morocco, the Polisario, Algeria, and Mauritania as observers.

He should ask both sides to submit new versions of their conflict-resolution plans: Rabat’s autonomy plan (which would devolve powers to Western Sahara while keeping it under Moroccan sovereignty) and the Polisario’s 1991 UN Settlement Plan, which is founded on a referendum on independence. These proposals, once amended, might serve as the foundation for the next round of negotiations.

The EU and its member states have already felt the effects of the Western Sahara conflict, which could worsen in the coming months if the situation continues to develop.

The EU could not only follow its own norms and back De Mistura’s efforts to reopen negotiations by using its economic clout in the dispute, but it could also limit an increasingly dangerous situation close to its borders by using its economic clout in the conflict.

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