On 27 February 2018 the CJEU issued its judgment in the Western Sahara Campaign case (Case C-266/16). In a short judgment, the court held that the 2006 partnership agreement in the fisheries sector (Fisheries Agreement) and a 2013 protocol to that agreement are inapplicable to the territory of Western Sahara. This was because including Western Sahara within the scope of these agreements would be contrary to “rules of general international law applicable in relations between the EU and Morocco”, particularly the principle of self-determination, and to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Why are we writing about fish in an Energy blog? As we explained in an earlier post on this case, the international law principles on which it turns are potentially relevant to other agreements about natural resources in areas where local populations claim rights of self-determination.
By interpreting the Fisheries Agreement and the 2013 protocol in this way, the CJEU did not have to determine whether agreements that did deal with resources in Western Sahara would be valid under EU and international law (a question Advocate General Wathelet answered in the negative). Nevertheless, the court’s willingness to invoke and apply international law principles, in particular that of self-determination, is an interesting demonstration of the possible impact of those principles. This may well be of broader importance with regard to agreements that purport to deal with other territories whose populations assert – or may in future assert and gain support for – the right to self-determination.
The court’s judgment relies heavily on its December 2016 judgment in Polisario (Case C-104/16), issued after the request for a preliminary ruling was made in Western Sahara. In Polisario, the court had held that the Euro-Mediterranean “association” agreement (the Association Agreement), as well as a Liberalisation Agreement (concerning liberalisation measures on agricultural and fishery products) had to be interpreted, in accordance with international law, as not applicable to the territory of Western Sahara. The Association Agreement and Liberalisation Agreement were initially also included in the Western Sahara reference, but in light of Polisario those aspects were withdrawn by the English High Court.
When interpreting the scope of the Fisheries Agreement and the 2013 protocol, AG Wathelet had considered that, unlike the agreements addressed in Polisario, the Fisheries Agreement and the 2013 protocol were applicable to Western Sahara and its adjacent waters. He reached this view on several bases, finding it was “manifestly established” that the parties intended the agreements to include Western Sahara, that their subsequent agreements and actions were consistent with this interpretation, and that it was also supported by the genesis of the agreements and previous similar agreements.
The court took a different view (without reference to the AG’s Opinion). First, noting the Fisheries Agreement is stated to be applicable to “the territory of Morocco”, the court held that this concept should be construed as meaning “the geographical area over which the Kingdom of Morocco exercises the fullness of the powers granted to sovereign entities by international law, to the exclusion of any other territory, such as that of Western Sahara”. It stated that, if Western Sahara were to be included within the scope of the agreement, that would be “contrary to certain rules of general international law that are applicable in relations between [the EU and Morocco], namely the principle of self-determination”.
The Fisheries Agreement also refers to “waters falling within the sovereignty or jurisdiction” of Morocco. Referring to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the court noted a coastal state is entitled to exercise sovereignty exclusively over the waters adjacent to its territory and forming part of its territorial sea or exclusive economic zone. Given Western Sahara did not form part of the “territory of Morocco”, the waters adjacent to it equally did not form part of the Moroccan fishing zone referred to in the agreement. A similar conclusion followed with regard to the 2013 protocol’s scope.
While more closely tied to the text of the fisheries agreements than the AG’s Opinion, the judgment suggests the court may seek to arrive at an interpretation of such agreements that respects international law insofar as possible. It is therefore a significant restatement of the importance of international law principles, particularly self-determination, to questions regarding sovereignty over natural resources in occupied territories, and therefore has potential ramifications for international agreements which purport to deal with such resources.