RABAT, April 20 (Reuters) - Moroccan and EU officials started closed-door negotiations on Friday on a new fisheries agreement, a diplomatic source said, following legal disputes over whether a deal could include the waters of the disputed Western Sahara region.
The talks in Rabat take place following a February ruling by the European Union’s highest court stating that a four-year EU-Morocco fisheries deal, which terminates on July 14, was valid as long as it was not applied to Western Sahara waters.
Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975, and since then the territory has been the subject of a dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front, an independence movement backed by neighbouring Algeria.
Pro-Polisairo campaigners have sought to challenge the EU’s trade deals with Morocco in courts because they include the disputed desert region.
The European Council authorized the European Commission on Monday to open negotiations with Morocco, taking account of the European Court of Justice’s February ruling.
Morocco’s Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Aziz Akhannouch announced the launch of negotiations following talks on Thursday in Rabat with EU Ambassador Claudia Wiedey.
Akhannouch and Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita told reporters in Rabat on Thursday that the new deal would include Western Sahara’s coastal waters.
“Morocco will make sure its territorial integrity and national unity are respected,” he said.
Polisario has promised to challenge in court any deal that includes Western Sahara waters.
The fisheries agreement has been described by Moroccan officials as beneficial to the national fisheries strategy, Haliutis, which has received 120 million euros in aid from the EU since its launch in 2009. Under the current fisheries agreement Morocco receives 30 million euros per year from the EU.
Morocco has offered limited autonomy to Western Sahara, a thinly populated region that has rich fishing waters and phosphate deposits, and may also have oil and gas reserves.
Polisario and its ally Algeria reject this and say they want a referendum, with independence for Western Sahara as one of the options. (Editing by Aidan Lewis, Editing by William Maclean)