A carte blanche from Patrick Saerens, lawyer, associate professor of international law at Ichec, visiting professor at the University of Metz, professor at the University of Oujda (Morocco).
Since Spain’s withdrawal in 1975, Western Sahara, a territory eight times the size of Belgium located between Morocco and Mauritania, has never known peace. UN resolutions have been followed one after another, and various representatives have been appointed to try to find a solution to this conflict, which is getting stuck between the Sheriff’s Kingdom, which manages 80% of the “southern province” and the Polisario Front. , an autonomous movement supported. of Algeria. This territorial dispute is the main source of disagreement between these two countries, which is detrimental to the development of the Maghreb and has significant economic costs, as the borders between these states have been closed since 1994. However, the situation is changing, especially after Morocco’s return to the African Union (AU) and a diplomacy aimed at being calm on the subject. In this context, the fact that the Biden government reaffirmed its predecessor’s choice to recognize Morocco’s right to this territory is a major event that changes the geostrategic data of the region. In just a few years, no less than 21 consulates have opened in Western Sahara, mostly from African countries, but now also from the United States, Haiti or the United Arab Emirates. In this context, the European Union maintains a wait-and-see attitude that serves neither its interests nor the people of the region.
Mix of genres. The EU has been negotiating economic agreements with Morocco on this area for several years, in particular with regard to the exploitation of phosphate, agriculture and fishery resources. Each time, the Polisario Front brought an action before the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg to challenge their legality. European judges have just annulled two agreements in September 2021 on the grounds that the EU can not ignore a statement by the Court of Justice in The Hague (UN judicial body), which in 1975 called on the international community to implement a process aimed at involving local people in the self-determination process . Admittedly, the decision of the Luxembourg judges was immediately appealed to the European Court of Justice, but an in-depth analysis of this judgment shows that the line between legal and political arguments is thin, which it does not. the role of the judiciary. However, the controversial decision has both diplomatic implications, as Morocco is by far the most reliable partner in the region, and financially, because if the decision were upheld, European companies could be sentenced to pay significant sums to the complainants. It is therefore urgent for the EU to address the issue in order to prevent a few judges from being forced to settle this political dispute through a node that is not their responsibility.
Autonomy status negotiation
Third way. Since the Green March in 1975 organized by Hassan II, which claimed full ownership of the “Moroccan” Sahara, the kingdom has been able to develop towards a more conciliatory attitude, in contrast to the inflexible, Polisario front and its Algerian allies. As early as 2007, Morocco presented to the UN an initiative to negotiate a statute of autonomy for the Sahara region, which was welcomed by many participants from all political persuasions. This project goes through a regional parliament and a transitional council representing all parties and tribes as well as broad privileges in terms of administration and use of economic and financial resources for the benefit of the people.
The EU also recognized in 2019 that this plan went in the right direction because everyone agrees that it is useless to want to organize, more than 50 years after the departure of the Spaniards, a referendum on self-determination for a people whose demographics and ambitions have developed significantly since then. Suffice it to keep in mind that since 1945 the UN has only been able to resolve the 64 territorial disputes that have been presented to it in this way on three occasions, and the others have been resolved through political negotiations. The alignment of the planets has never been so favorable to a negotiated “win-win” solution, but requires some political courage. The French Presidency of the European Union may take over, but we can hope that Belgium, the consensus country where Europe’s heart beats, can contribute its stone to the building.