Relations between EU and Western Sahara – Disgraceful Disunity

, by Robert Jacek Włodarski

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Relations between EU and Western Sahara – Disgraceful Disunity
Isidro López-Aparicio performing the piece: isolation in the Western Sahara desert (Tifariti), denouncing the isolation suffered by the Saharawi people in the refugee camps of Tindouf since 1975

EU countries have been repeatedly involved in conflicts around the world; in Ukraine, the Middle East and other places. In all well-reported events most of the European countries take an idealistic and humanitarian stance by opposing dictators and supporting the oppressed. However, the case of Western Sahara, which has not been so widely reported and cared about, shows that as soon as the media and the people are not involved, the EU remains divided, simultaneously supporting both sides and concerned only with its economic interests.

Western Sahara, which is inhabited by the Sahrawi people, was freed from Spain in 1975. It was Africa’s last colony and its people, directed by the Polisaro Front, looked forward to gaining independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. As the Spanish leader, infamous General Franco was terminally ill, the country was in chaos and no one supervised the transition of power in the so-called Spanish Sahara.

This opportunity was immediately seized by Morocco and Mauritania and the young nation was invaded. The Mauritanians withdrew over time. Ironically, Morocco, a former colony, began to treat Western Sahara as its colony and the Sahrawi people as its colonial subjects. The armed conflict left many displaced and even more in refugee camps across the region. The EU, UN and the African Union have failed in organizing long-lasting peace through a referendum.

This should be seen as a result of geopolitics and the economic interests of some European countries, such as France and Spain, who openly support Morocco. Oddly, both powers back Ukraine in a parallel conflict in Eastern Europe. Many EU members remain indecisive or periodically express their aid towards Morocco. Germans and Danes try to remain as neutral as possible, mediate the conflict and do everything in order not to break the international law. On the other side, Sweden and some of the European institutions such as the ECJ support the struggle of the Sahrawi people, but this help remains rather limited.

While Western Sahara is officially an unrecognized territory according to all of the EU members, the united Europe is not able to consolidate its position and solve the political, humanitarian and moral conflict so close to its borders.

Backing the Colonisers

Most EU countries indirectly support Morocco. They do not formally recognize its authority over Western Sahara but repeatedly stress that the conflict needs to be resolved in Rabat’s favour. Sharing a border with Morocco, Spain is willing to pay a high price for the harmony, especially because of the ‘Refugee Crisis’. Significantly, the former colonial empire has strong economic links with its southern neighbour. As a result, despite the popular sentiment towards the Sahrawi people within the Spanish society, Madrid respects Morocco’s ‘right to govern Western Sahara’.

On the other hand, the French strategy originates from the Cold War, when the Western leaders feared another Soviet stronghold in Africa. France has, consequently, stuck to the policy of preventing further instability in North Africa and has done her best to contain the conflict without changing the status quo. Paris frequently sends incredibly strong messages to the world to ignore the problem despite the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

While the countries traditionally supportive of Rabat’s claims supported UN’s investigation of the humanitarian catastrophe in 2010, Sarkozy’s administration blatantly used its authority as a member of the UN Security Council to block an inquiry. Similarly, Paris tried to obstruct the UN-sponsored investigation in 2014.

However, due to the public outcry, the Élysée Palace denied its actions and relaxed its position. In order to find the simplest solution to the crisis and bring stability, France has continuously supported governments accused of human rights abuses.

Other European countries evidently do not have a clear strategy and indirectly support Rabat’s claims over the region either to boost their economic interests in North Africa or merely because it has always been their policy. The pattern is always the same. For example, Poland tried to improve its terms of trade with Morocco in 2010. Waldemar Pawlak, the Deputy Prime Minister, was more than ready to develop the cooperation during the Polish-Moroccan Economic Forum. However, it came out that parts of the cooperation illegally gave the Poles rights to mine phosphates from Western Sahara.

Surprisingly, the Polish Ministry of Economy issued a hectic statement stating the region was an integral part of Morocco and signed the pact thereafter. Not only did it violate international law and UN resolutions from the 1970s, but also it was contradictory to Warsaw’s official position on this matter. This shows precisely that some European governments do not even reflect upon their views on the issue which shapes the lives of 500,000 people. Other countries which have quite a similar attitude to Western Sahara, include Bulgaria, Netherlands, Hungary and Romania.

Benevolent Neutrality

However, some EU members try to be as impartial as possible or postpone the debate about the humanitarian and diplomatic crisis. Germany, as the strongest European economy, has always remained neutral about the conflict. In 2015, Michael Roth, German Minister of State for Europe, stressed that Berlin would always follow the international law while facing the issues regarding Western Sahara. This has involved pressuring German companies out of the disputed region. For example, the Bundestag informed that it would neither support nor protect Siemens in its infrastructure projects which undermined the UN peace mission in January 2018.

As a result, due to the neutral position of Angela Merkel’s cabinet in the conflict, the UN chief appointed German ex-president Horst Koehler as the Western Sahara envoy in July 2017. The politician immediately called for talks involving Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria and the Polisaro Front to be held in Berlin this year. This shows that despite the neutrality, at least some of the German policymakers genuinely try to resolve the conflict.

Unfortunately, this cannot be said about the Danish legislators. In 2016, Denmark reduced its actions to urging its own companies to withdraw from “Africa’s last colony”. Importantly, this decision was reached by a unanimous vote of the conservative, progressive and populist parties.

The Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Kristian Jensen stated that the move would have a positive impact on the UN-sponsored peace talks in the region, which tend to be undermined by the companies ignoring the conflict and accepting Morocco’s occupation. However, the bill still allows for trade if it benefits the Sahrawi population, which has created room for abuses.

In particular, Copenhagen faced mounting criticism from pro-Polisaro groups as companies exploited the vague clauses of the 2016 measure. The Danish Foreign Ministry was, consequently, forced to defend the legality of the investment in 2017. Furthermore, the move to restrict the firms’ presence in Western Sahara was partly justified by the need of protection of the investors from the risk of war. As a conclusion, the Danish government does not harm the Sahrawi people, as it respects the international law. However, Copenhagen does not do anything else to make the international law enforced.

Symbolic Support

Are there any European countries or institutions which actively help Western Sahara in their cause? No doubt, Sweden has done much more than all the other EU states. Riksdag, the Swedish Parliament, voted to recognise Western Sahara as a country in 2012, which had not been done by any country in Europe. Sadly, Stockholm was forced to soften its stance as Morocco had threatened Sweden with a boycott. None of the Swedish governments have, therefore enacted this decision so far and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic remains unrecognised by the entire EU.

Ironically, the Social Democrats who voted in favour of the motion in 2012 also rejected the recognition idea when in power in 2016. Stockholm also has not done much in combating economic exploitation of the Sahrawi people, as Denmark did. Nevertheless, Sweden is one of the biggest contributors of humanitarian aid to the Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf. This shows that despite all the limitations, the Swedish government does much more than most of the European regimes.

Some of the European institutions remain the most reliable ally of Western Sahara and international law. The European Court for Justice (ECJ) has been repeatedly involved in the issue of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, especially in the cases of the economic interests in the disputed territory.

In 2016, the ECJ ruled that the agricultural agreement between the EU and Morocco could not cover the problematic area. Afterwards, Western Sahara Campaign Group sought a verdict from the High Court of Justice in London on the Fisheries Agreement from 2006. The British asked the ECJ to decide on the issue. Unsurprisingly, the EU-Morocco pact was declared invalid at the beginning of 2018.

However, not all the institutions prioritise international law and the Sahrawi people’s right for self-determination. The European Commission asked the member states for a mandate to reshape the deal with Morocco so that it includes the Western Sahara’s waters after it was excluded from the agricultural cooperation by the ECJ. It is not clear what the legal basis of that move is. Importantly, it caused a controversy among member states, especially in the Danish parliament, where the debate was so fierce that it was postponed until any agreement could be reached. It is, therefore, clear that some EU institutions back the Sahrawi people in their struggle, but the EU is divided even at the top.

No doubt, the division among European countries fuels the conflict that has already lasted more than 40 years. The blatant ignorance, outdated tactics, Morocco’s bullying and the fact that the conflict is not sexy enough in the media has left whole generations of people displaced, hopeless and without a country of their own.

We often judge the states on how they treat the issues and people everyone cares about. Perhaps, we should start judging our leaders on how they treat those that no one stands for.


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