EU reaffirms: Western Sahara products to be labelled as such
Two weeks ago, the EU Commission announced that products from Western Sahara should be labelled accordingly, only to withdraw that statement the very next day. Today, the Commission reaffirms its original position.
"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 now appears to be the final and definitive answer of EU Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski with regard to the labelling of products from the last colony in Africa. Find it published here.
The statement is identical to the one given two weeks ago, in response to a parliamentary question by MEP Heidi Hautala (Finland, Greens/EFA). But that written answer, as published on the website of the European Parliament, was withdrawn not even 24 hours later.
In response to that bizarre chain of events, MEP Hautala stated: "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."
Turns out that the "new" response, is in fact the same as the initial response.
"Congratulations are in order", says Sara Eyckmans from Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW). "It would appear that the Commission has discovered a newfound commitment to the correct labelling of origin of products from occupied Western Sahara. We sincerely hope that the Commission will continue on this path towards a more legally sound approach to Western Sahara: the Commission clearly acknowledges that the territory is not Morocco, so a next step would be to exclude it from its trade arrangement with Morocco."
In December 2016, the EU Court of Justice ruled that the EU-Morocco Trade Agreement could not be applied to Western Sahara, given that the territory is "distinct and separate" from Morocco. Western Sahara, the Court argued, is to be regarded as a third territory to the EU's trade relations with Morocco. As such, it can only be lawfully affected by those relations with the explicit consent of the people of the territory.
In order to appease Morocco - which froze its relations with the EU after the judgment - the EU quickly moved to negotiate an amendment to the existing trade deal to explicitely include Western Sahara with ... Morocco. The people of Western Sahara were not involved in any stages of the negotiation process. And in an attempt to create the illusion that consent had been obtained, the EU External Action Service proceeded to hold a consultation exercise in which only Moroccan entities participated, after the deal had already been initialed. Claims by the EEAS that the UN-recognised representation of the people of Western Sahara, the Polisario Front, had been consulted, were quickly proven to be a flat out lie. In fact, 83% of the groups - including WSRW - that the EU Commission claimed had participated in a 'consultation' regarding Western Sahara trade, had either never been asked to take part - or had not taken part - in any such process.
In spite of the clear opposition of the people of Western Sahara - expressed both through Polisario and through Saharawi civil society groups - to having the EU-Morocco trade deal apply to the part of their land that is under Moroccan occupation, the deal was approved by both the European Parliament and the EU Member States.
Polisario initiated legal proceedings against the amended trade deal with the EU Court of Justice (case T-279/19 Front Polisario v Council). A verdict is expected later this year.
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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.