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How the diplomatic impasse in North Africa hits trade

Some $2.4 billion of British trade is at stake in the renewed conflict in the Western Sahara

Britain, which launched its grand foreign policy review this week, has become entangled in the long-running saga over whether trade deals with Morocco apply to products coming from the disputed Western Sahara.

Last week, the agreement to roll over the European Union-Morocco trade deal was put on notice after the Western Sahara Campaign (UK) issued a legal challenge. The case will also be the first test of whether British judges agree with the European Court of Justice on a trade deal (AC Vol 60 No 4, Fishing for favours). 

The deal with Morocco, adopted in December 2019, was one of the first rollover trade pacts Britain signed into law ahead of its departure from the European Union and covers £2.4 billion in trade of goods and services between the two countries.

However, because it is a carbon copy of the EU agreement which has been in and out of court over the past five years, there is every chance that it will be blocked. That would cause embarrassment on both sides, particularly since the Britain is unlikely to offer preferential trade terms to Rabat any time soon.

In 2016, the Sahrawi independence movement, the Polisario Front, won the first of several ECJ rulings that the bloc's trade deals with Morocco should not apply to the Western Sahara, although the European Commission ignored the rulings. The issue has not gone away, even though the European Parliament in 2019 extended trade preferences to products from the territory, while the Commission opened talks with Rabat on expanding the scope of trade and political relations (AC Vol 60 No 14, Lobbying pays off for Bourita).

Indeed, the EU's trade relations with Morocco are back in the legal spotlight, with the ECJ hearing a new round of submissions over the Morocco-EU trade agreement earlier this month.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said Rabat would repel what he described as 'judicial harassment'. A ruling is not expected for several months.



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