BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union's highest court said Wednesday that EU agreements on closer ties and trade with Morocco should not apply to the disputed Western Sahara region, a decision that the Polisario Front independence movement claimed as a victory.
The Moroccan government also welcomed the decision, saying it will allow resumed trade negotiations with the EU after a year of diplomatic tensions.
The Luxembourg-based Court of Justice said any deal with Morocco should have specifically referred to the region and that the people there should have consented to being part of such an agreement if both sides wanted it included.
The territory's status is among the most sensitive topics in the North African kingdom. Morocco considers the vast mineral-rich Western Sahara as its "southern provinces" and fiercely defends against anything it considers a threat to its territorial integrity.
Polisario saw the court decision as highlighting that the Western Sahara does not belong to Morocco, which annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975 and fought the Polisario Front. The U.N. brokered a cease-fire in 1991 and established a peacekeeping mission to monitor it.
Emboldened by the ruling, Polisario's representative to Europe, Mohamed Sidati, called on the EU nations to "immediately cease all agreements, funding and projects reinforcing Morocco's illegal occupation of Western Sahara."
The Moroccan government, however, argued that Wednesday's ruling means it will be able to resume trade with the EU — and that it eventually may resume trade in goods from the Western Sahara.
A year ago, the European court annulled an EU-Morocco agricultural accord based on a complaint by Polisario that the Saharan people should have been consulted first. That court ruling prompted protracted diplomatic tensions between the EU and Morocco, a key Western trade partner and ally on counterterrorism and migration.
The EU appealed the decision. In Wednesday's ruling, the court allowed the accord to enter into force after all, but specified that it would not apply to the Western Sahara.
"It's an important change," Nasser Bourita, Moroccan minister delegate for foreign affairs and cooperation, told The Associated Press. "We consider that the accord remains in force as it is."
"The Sahara's future will not be decided by a judge in a court. It will be decided in an appropriate setting, in the framework of the United Nations," he said.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Morocco's foreign affairs minister, Salaheddine Mezouar, said in joint statement that both sides will "study all possible implications of the court ruling and will work together on its application."
For the Green group in the EU parliament, the ruling was an incentive for the EU "to urgently put all its weight behind finding a just solution to this protracted conflict."