As of this Monday, 17 July, European trawlers will no longer be able to fish off the Moroccan coast since the fisheries protocol is over, and renewing the protocol will be complicated since Morocco is seeking to secure a more advantageous deal.
EU trawlers catch sardines, tuna and anchovies off the Moroccan coast, and in return, the bloc paid Morocco a total of €208 million over the past four years.
At the moment, there are no negotiations between the EU and Morocco over fishing rights, a European Commission spokesperson said. He added that the EU and its Moroccan partners were evaluating the past four years with regard to a possible renewal of the fisheries protocol. This, however, would depend on the circumstances, constraints and economic and business factors.
These circumstances presumably refer to a 2021 ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which declared the EU-Morocco fishing protocol null and void off the coast of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, was largely annexed by Morocco in 1975.
Since then, the Polisario Front movement has been fighting for the territory's independence. Because the EU did not get the consent of the people of Western Sahara for the sustainable fisheries partnership agreement, which entered into force on July 18, 2019, the European Court of Justice annulled the protocol.
The European Commission has since appealed this ruling. And although EU vessels are allowed to continue fishing in Moroccan waters until Monday, this pending ruling could be a reason why the EU and Morocco are not currently planning to renew the deal.
Lorena Stella Martini, a Morocco analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Rome, expects the ECJ to reach a final decision by the end of the year.
Martini said the Western Sahara issue could have far-reaching implications that go well beyond fishing. All of this can have an impact on other areas of relations between the EU and Morocco'. Depending on the final ECJ ruling, it will become clear whether EU treaties with Morocco regarding agricultural or economic issues generally relate to Western Sahara or not.
Morocco, after all, very much regards Western Sahara as part of its own country.
Morocco's foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, last week hinted at another reason for not renewing the fisheries protocol. In an apparent dig against the EU, he said his country wanted partnerships with clearer added value, instead of simple deals that allowed foreign trawlers to fish in Moroccan waters, pay a fee and leave.
It's obvious why the Moroccan side is choosing these words, said Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund think tank. Relations between Morocco and the EU have deteriorated rapidly in recent months, he added, especially after the European Parliament condemned Morocco's human rights situation earlier this year.
They felt they were singled out, especially because Algeria was not mentioned, said Kirkegaard. EU lawmakers had rebuked Morocco over humans rights issues, yet remained silent on its eastern neighbor Algeria, a key gas supplier for several EU states. For decades, Morocco and Algeria have been at odds because Algeria supports Western Sahara's Polisario Front Movement..
Morocco's anger over this situation could mean it will only agree to extend the fisheries protocol if the EU is more accommodating, said Kirkegaard. In the long run, he added, this would mean recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Spain, for example, has already accepted Morocco's claim to the region, he said.
Among all EU member states, Spain will be particularly hard hit when the fisheries protocol expires.. This is because most of the 128 EU trawlers fishing in Moroccan waters sail under the Spanish flag, with just a few flying French, German and Dutch flags. However it is not simple since Spain holds the EU Council presidency until the end of December.