- The Moroccan-EFTA free trade agreement does not cover Western Sahara, according to a clarification by Norwegian and Swiss authorities. Also the US-Moroccan free trade agreement excludes Western Sahara, leaving only the EU including the occupied territory.
The clarification was made by Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre in Oslo parliament this week. "Since Morocco does not exercise internationally recognised sovereignty over Western Sahara, Western Sahara is not seen as a part of Morocco's territory in relation to this agreement. The Free Trade Agreement is thus not applicable to goods from Western Sahara," stated Mr Støre.
The government of Switzerland has made recent and similar clarifications, leaving the EFTA trade block's two major economies on the same course. EFTA, existing since 1960, also comprises of Iceland and Liechtenstein, and is closely associated to the European Union (EU).
The clarification from Minster Støre follows an import scandal that has been unrolled in Norwegian media over the last weeks, involving the president of the Norwegian business association, millions of euros in tax evasions, ministers and refugees. As a result of the affair, it has become clear that the practice of EFTA is in stark contrast to the policy fronted by the European Commission on trade with goods from occupied Western Sahara.
EFTA in 1997 signed an association agreement with Morocco. Exports from Morocco to the four EFTA states was thus made far easier, but created a loophole, giving importers a chance to export products from occupied Western Sahara free of duty if mislabelling the imports as 'Moroccan'.
And this is exactly what happened in Norway, media unveiled. A leading importing firm secretly purchased fish oil from Western Sahara for use for aquaculture industry for a decade.
The Norwegian fish oil importer, GC Rieber, by mislabelling 12-20,000 tonnes of Western Saharan fish oil annually as 'Moroccan', thus failing to pay customs to Norwegian authorities for perhaps as much as euro 50 million.
The reason for the tax difference is that Norway does not recognise the Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara. Both Norway and Switzerland, the two biggest EFTA states, thus clearly have stated that the EFTA free trade agreement with Morocco does not apply to products originating from Western Sahara.
The affair in Norway did not get less controversial considering that the importer was owned by the President of the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise. During the last few weeks, the president of the Confederation has resigned over the affair and his company is under investigation by the Norwegian Ministry of Finance.
The Oslo government on several occasions has told Norwegian companies not to get involved in business in the occupied territory. But occasionally, scandals involving Norwegian investments in Western Sahara, in particular in the fisheries, oil and phosphate sectors, have been unveiled by media, mostly leading to quick divestments.
By clearly excluding Western Sahara territory from the application of the EFTA-Morocco Free Trade Agreement, Norway now applies the same interpretation as the other major EFTA country, Switzerland.
"Since Switzerland does not recognise the Moroccan annexation, the free trade agreement between EFTA and Morocco is not applicable for Western Sahara", stated Martin Zbinden, Head of Free Trade Agreement at the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs in 2007, when the Swiss Western Sahara committee, ARSO, investigated Swiss tomato imports from the territory.
By excluding Western Sahara, EFTA is thus is much more clearly following the UN and US, than the EU. A US-Moroccan agreement explicitly excludes Western Sahara, but an EU-Moroccan agreement in practical terms includes the territory. The EU for example pays the Moroccan government for fishing in Western Sahara waters.
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