UK Justice Consolidates Trade Agreement with Morocco for Good, EU Still on Hold

UK Justice Consolidates

An irrevocable decision by a London Court of Appeal has put an end to legal proceedings led by a UK-based pro-Polisario non-profit, which aimed to challenge the trade continuity agreement between the UK and Morocco. European observers have been watching the case closely, with a decision soon to be made regarding the EU-Morocco agreement, on which the UK-Morocco agreement was based.

At the heart of this dispute is the ongoing geopolitical tug-of-war over the Western Sahara region, over which Morocco continues to claim sovereignty. The UK-based NGO, Western Sahara Campaign UK (WSCUK), took issue with a trade continuity agreement signed by the UK and Morocco back in 2019, which was designed to replicate Moroccos agreement with the European Union following Brexit.

“Morocco has a well-diversified and modern market across a number of sectors where UK companies and expertise have much to offer. I hope that this Agreement will usher in a new phase of increased bilateral investment in each others economies, which is so essential for continued stable economic growth,” said then British ambassador to Morocco, Thomas Reilly.

The group argued that regulations which extended the preferential rate of import duty to goods originating in Western Sahara were illegal, and that the agreement affirmed Rabat’s sovereignty over the region.

WSCUK took legal action at London’s High Court in a direct challenge to the UK’s post-Brexit trade arrangements with Morocco, specifically regarding goods from the disputed territory of Western Sahara. The group argued that regulations which extended the preferential rate of import duty to goods originating in Western Sahara were unlawful, as it does not recognise Rabat’s control over the region and therefore its lawful use of products from the region in any international trade agreement.

In what was a first blow to WSCUK’s legal challenge, a UK High Court dismissed the case in December 2022. Judge Sara Cockerill rejected the organisation’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. In a written ruling, she said that the groups claims regarding the agreement between the UK and Morocco would mean that the agreement could not be used as regards products originating in Western Sahara at all”.

An appeal was however to be set in motion, and this came before the London Court of Appeal last week (May 25).

The appeal court upheld its original decision made in 2021, allowing Morocco to continue its trade agreement with the UK unhindered, in what is a huge boost to Rabat as it seeks improved trade agreements with international partners, notably the EU. The ruling definitively upholds the validity of the UK-Morocco agreement, providing a solid framework for economic and commercial relations in various sectors between the two states and favouring investment and trade on Moroccan territory.

“We welcome the verdict. We will continue to work closely with Morocco to maximise the £2.7 billion of trade between our countries,” said a spokesman for the UK Department for International Trade. “We look forward to continuing our exchanges with our Moroccan counterparts through the Association Council next year,” he said.

EU observers will have been paying close attention to the outcome of the legal challenge. The UK-Morocco agreement was an almost identical agreement to that which the EU has drawn up with Rabat. Notably, there are soon to be a new round of negotiations regarding the fisheries deal which was also subject to legal challenges in the past by groups including WSCUK.

The ECJ has thus far been unable to outline a clear position regarding trade with Morocco due to the situation in Western Sahara. The UK Court ruling could mean that EU lawmakers go for a more pragmatic approach regarding the matter, as mutual economic benefits are substantial.


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