Spectacular backtracking by EU Commission on Western Sahara labelling
On 5 February 2020, the EU Commission announced that products from Western Sahara should be labelled accordingly. But about 24 hours later, all traces to that statement had been removed from EU websites.
"All imported products, including those originating from the Western Sahara, need to comply with the relevant legislation, including the requirement to provide accurate and not misleading information on the country of origin or provenance of those products, which in such case must thus be “Western Sahara”. That is the answer EU Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski gave on 5 February 2020 to a question in the European Parliament.
This answer was published on the website of the European Parliament, as is standard procedure when Parliamentary Questions are responded to. But one day later, the Commission's statement had been removed from that website.
The parliamentary question that had lead to the answer, presented by MEP Heidi Hautala (Finland, Greens/EFA) on 11 December 2020, can still be found on the Parliament's website (with reference code P-004368/2019) . The question concerned the labeling of origin on products coming from Western Sahara and whether Morocco's conformity checks on these products are in line with relevant EU Regulations - particularly in view of rulings by the EU Court of Justice establishing that Morocco has no sovereignty or jurisdiction over Western Sahara. The icon displayed at the right top corner of the page - a document with caption "answer in writing" - indicates that the question has been answered and can be accessed through clicking that particular icon (see photo to the right).
But the page containing the answer that Commissioner Wojciechowski had given on behalf of the EU Commission as a whole, has been taken down. Instead, visitors of the page get a disclaimer saying "The internet adress (url) you wanted to consult does not exist" (see screenshot above).
"Why this bizarre chain of events, I cannot fathom. This is really unprecedented, particularly for an official reply to the Parliament from the highest level of the Commission. Apparently, a new, presumably “correct” response will be provided by the Commission in due course. I look forward to seeing how it will differ from the initial response", MEP Hautala states.
When the Commission's statement on correct labelling of origin of products from Western Sahara was first published, EU media referred to it as a "blow for Morocco". "The European Commission on Wednesday said products originating from the Western Sahara must be labelled as such, in a move likely to stoke a backlash from Morocco, which annexed the territory", EU Observer wrote.
Given Rabat's sensitivity on the issue - it has frozen its relations with the EU over Western Sahara before - such a backlash may very well be behind this inexplicable backpedalling.
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Morocco occupies the major part of its neighbouring country, Western Sahara. Entering into business deals with Moroccan companies or authorities in the occupied territories gives an impression of political legitimacy to the occupation. It also gives job opportunities to Moroccan settlers and income to the Moroccan government. Western Sahara Resource Watch demands foreign companies leave Western Sahara until a solution to the conflict is found.
It's not easy keeping up with all the different legal proceedings relating to Western Sahara. For the sake of clarity, here's an overview of the five different cases at the Court of Justice of the European Union.