RABAT, Morocco (AP) — A legal adviser to the European Union’s top court recommended Thursday that it annul the bloc’s fishing agreement with Morocco, which would have allowed European boats to fish for valuable catch off the coast of the disputed Western Sahara.

The advocate general for the Court of Justice of the EU backed the court’s earlier ruling and recommended it reject a series of appeals that sought to uphold Europe’s Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement with Morocco. The court in 2021 ruled the agreement violated the rights of people from the disputed territory and the Polisario Front, which Europe considers the representatives of the Sahrawi people.

The 2019 agreement lays out how European vessels can fish off of northwest Africa, including in waters adjacent to the disputed territory claimed and administered by Morocco. Advocate General Tamara Capeta said in press release Thursday that it did “not fulfill the requirement to treat the territory of Western Sahara as ‘separate and distinct’ from that of the Kingdom of Morocco.”

The court generally follows recommendations from appointed legal experts like Capeta and Thursday’s strikes a blow against Morocco and the European authorities who appealed the ruling.

Morocco’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to questions about the decision.

The status of the disputed Western Sahara has been a major sticking point between Morocco and the European Union, its biggest trade partner and foreign investor. Agreements between the two sides have allowed Morocco to export millions of valuable fish, melons and tomatoes, though whether they can do so with products from the disputed territory has long been in question.

Though the agreement under scrutiny pertains to rights off the northwest African coast, the heart of the issue is about land and sovereignty.

The one-time Spanish colony has been fought over between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front since Spain withdrew in 1975. Morocco considers the territory its southern provinces and governs the majority of the land, except for a small sliver on the eastern side of a sand berm near the Algerian border.

Thursday’s recommendations come as an increasing number of countries, including 15 EU members, shift their stances to back a Moroccan plan that would offer residents of the resource-rich territory wide-ranging autonomy but not a referendum toward potential independence.

In linked decisions, Capeta also recommended the court not ban the import of tomatoes and melons from the disputed territory to France but require they be labeled as from the Western Sahara, not Morocco.

She also recommended the court side with a European appeal challenging a ruling rejecting a tariff scheme governing trade between Morocco and Europe. She said extending a tariff agreement Europe made with Morocco on products from the disputed territory shouldn’t be seen as a violation of the Western Sahara’s right to self-determination.

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