Western Sahara talks represent major challenge to EU

Western Sahara talks represent major challenge to EU
4 min read
Morocco's control of the Western Sahara enables Rabat to maintain strong links with the European Union.
France and Spain have been Morocco's strongest supporters in its claims over Western Sahara [AFP]
Horst Kohler, the United Nations Secretary-General's special envoy to Western Sahara, has broken the silence over his first plan to hold talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front.

Kohler has invited the two parties to Berlin, but the exact dates for the proposed talks remain unclear - though expected in the next two months.

Choosing Berlin

There have been decades of deadlock over Western Sahara, and consecutive UN envoys have failed to mediate an agreement. But Kohler, a former German president, wants to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors by distancing the Western Sahara talks from the UN headquarters in New York - where Morocco, Algeria and the Polisario have engaged in a war of lobbying by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. Morocco has spent the most in recent years.

In fact, Germany's neutrality in the Western Sahara conflict provides a better chance for both parties to accept Kohler's invitation.

Unlike France, the United States and Spain, who have expressed their support for the Moroccan autonomy proposal, Germany has been impartial despite Moroccan attempts to engage Europe's strongest economy in the Western Sahara.

The federal government does not support the economic activities of German companies in Western Sahara

While Morocco succeeded in attracting Germany's Siemens to invest in the Western Sahara, the official position of the German government remains against any involvement in the disputed region.

In December, Matthis Maching, the German State Secretary at the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs, expressed his government's opposition to German business in Western Sahara.

"The federal government does not support the economic activities of German companies in Western Sahara and does not secure business through export credit and investment guarantees," German media reported him as saying.

While this strengthens the German position as an independent mediator, there are other obstacles that the former German diplomat might find himself obliged to deal with.

The fisheries exploitation by the EU... does not respect the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination

France and Spain - who have been the main and strongest supporters of the Moroccan kingdom for its claims to the Western Sahara region - would likely weigh in on Morocco's side, particularly after a new opinion was issued by the EU Court of Justice's Advocate General, Melchior Wathelet, invalidating the EU-Morocco fisheries deal after a request from the British government to clarify the case.

"The fisheries exploitation by the EU of the waters adjacent to Western Sahara established and implemented by the contested acts does not respect the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination," Wathelet said.

There are still talks between Morocco and the EU on the implementation of economic deals that cover Western Sahara.

Morocco's PowerPoint in the Western Sahara plight

Morocco's control of the Western Sahara has enabled it to maintain mutual interests with the EU, especially with France and Spain, who remain Morocco's biggest investors.

The shared maritime and land borders with Spain, which represent a major concern across Europe, remain a point of strength for Morocco to pressure Europe to adopt a softer approach to sometimes shaky bilateral relations, which have faltered over legal opinions invalidating EU-Morocco treaties that include Western Sahara.

Migration role in EU-Morocco relations

Though the EU has not managed to get itself out of the Morocco-Western Sahara legal row, migration control will remain a thorn in the EU's side; a sore point which Morocco can exploit if it feels its interests under threat.

Thus the success of Kohler is dependent on whether he would seek to avoid confrontation between Germany and other EU powers.

The long-awaited talks are unlikely to open a new page on the Western Sahara conflict. But they will test the European ability to resolve a question that still represents a threat to its security and economies.

Habibulah Mohamed Lamin is a journalist formerly based in the Western Sahara refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. He has worked as a translator and is director of Equipe Media Branch, a group of media activists covering Western Sahara. His work focuses on the politics and culture of the Maghreb.

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