A campaign group has lost a legal challenge to Britain’s post-Brexit trade arrangements with Morocco over goods from the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which should give Rabat a shot in the arm on the world’s stage and how it views the desert region which was originally a colony of Spain’s until 1975.
The Western Sahara Campaign UK (WSCUK) took legal action over regulations made by Britain’s finance ministry following the October 2019 “association agreement”, which was designed to replicate Morocco’s agreement with the European Union.
The group argued at London’s High Court that regulations which extended the preferential rate of import duty to goods originating in Western Sahara, a territory Morocco regards as its own, were unlawful.
The case is not the first time the disputed region of Western Sahara has become the centre of attention of a debate which argues that it should not benefit from trade deals that Rabat negotiates with other countries.
On September 29, a decision taken by the EU’s highest court may throw EU-Morocco relations into a disarray. The European Union court, at the end of September annulled a ruling previously signed off by MEPs in Brussels to accept the Western Sahara as a territory which should be included in the latest agriculture and fisheries trade agreement with the EU. The case, unsurprisingly, was presented to the EU court by the Algerian-backed “Polisario” group, which fights for the independence of the zone and rejects Morocco’s sovereignty. Rabat is now considering its next move, which some have speculated might result in a “divorce” from the EU.
For this more recent UK case, it represents a victory for Rabat in contrast to the EU case.
Judge Sara Cockerill dismissed WSCUK’s argument that products originating in Western Sahara should only benefit from preferential tariffs if they were produced with the consent of the people of Western Sahara, according to Reuters.
She said in a written ruling on November 6th that the group’s interpretation of the agreement between the United Kingdom and Morocco would mean that “the agreement could not be used as regards products originating in Western Sahara at all”.
A British government spokesperson said: “We welcome today’s verdict. We will continue to work closely with Morocco to maximise [the] 2.7 billion pounds worth of trade between our countries.”
Erin Alcock, a lawyer at Leigh Day who represented WSCUK, said her client was “disappointed with the court’s decision”.
The ruling follows a long-simmering dispute over the territory of Western Sahara, which has become part of Morocco and Algeria’s regional rivalry in North Africa.
Algeria backs the Polisario Front independence movement for the disputed territory, which announced in 2020 the resumption of its armed struggle against Morocco which has heightened tensions between Rabat and Algiers.