* EU govts to discuss one-year fish pact extension
* EU Commission to assess deal’s benefits to Sahrawis
* Extension flouts international law, say campaigners
BRUSSELS, Feb 11 (Reuters) - The European Union plans to extend for one year a controversial fisheries agreement with Morocco that critics say consolidates the North African country’s hold over disputed Western Sahara.
In plans unveiled on Friday, the EU’s executive Commission proposed prolonging until March 2012 a pact whereby the EU acquires the right from Morocco to fish its waters and also off Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony annexed by Morocco.
The extension will allow Brussels policymakers to decide whether Morocco has been able to prove the trade deal benefits Sahrawis — a possible hurdle for renewing for four years a pact that has come under increasing pressure.
“This one-year period will be used to assess the data and information obtained from the Moroccan authorities about the regional impacts of the protocol and to define next steps,” the Commission said in a statement.
Representatives of EU governments will discuss the matter next week and could approve the extension later this month.
Campaign group Western Sahara Resource Watch urged EU governments to reject an extension unless Morocco could prove tangible benefits for the territory’s population.
“The Commission has shown complete disregard for international law by not consulting with the people of Western Sahara as the United Nations demands,” the group’s coordinator in Brussels, Sara Eyckmans, told Reuters.
The United Nations demands that economic activities in non-selfgoverning territories be in accordance with the wishes and interests of the people. Critics say the EU’s annual 36 million euro fishing licence payments goes straight into the coffers of the Moroccan government.
Morocco’s annexation of the territory in 1975 prompted a rebellion by the opposition Polisario Front. The United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991, but subsequent negotiations have failed to find a political settlement in Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute. [ID:nLDE6A70T6]
European fishermen widely fish the waters of Western Sahara under the current 2007 agreement, mainly for sardines and octopus destined for European restaurants and processing plants.
Activists estimate about 70 to 80 percent of fish caught under the fisheries accord are caught in the disputed waters. Spain — home to fish processing giant Pescanova (PVA.MC) — has led the call for the pact to be extended.
But responding to mounting concerns, EU fisheries chief Maria Damanaki in October said the EU executive Commission can only propose a renewal if Morocco proves the deal will benefit Sahrawis. [ID:nN16158039]
Draft plans to limit a new pact to the waters north of the Sahrawi border have faced strong opposition within the European Commission, EU officials say. <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ For a FACTBOX on Western Sahara [ID:nLDE6A40VM] ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>
Reporting by Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck; Editing by Rex Merrifield