STRASBOURG — European Parliament lawmakers blocked a deal Wednesday allowing special access for EU fishermen to Moroccan waters, prompting Rabat to issue an immediate ban on European fishing boats.
At the centre of the issue is the contested region of Western Sahara, which Morocco annexed in 1976.
European lawmakers said they wanted to wanted to wait until the interests of Western Sahara trawlers were taken on board before agreeing to a 12-month extension allowing EU fishermen in Moroccan waters.
In return, Morocco would have received millions of euros in funding for allowing some 120 fishing boats, mainly Spanish, to operate in its waters.
Morocco reacted swiftly, issuing a ban on EU vessels.
"No fishing activity from the European fleet will be tolerated and all boats operating in the area of the fisheries agreement are asked to leave national territorial waters on Wednesday before midnight," the Moroccan foreign ministry said in a statement.
Slamming what it said was a "regrettable" decision, the ministry said the EU move would have "serious consequences on future cooperation in fishing."
It said it also scotched any attempt by the kingdom for a "global reassessment of it partnership with the EU."
The vote on the deal, passed by 326 to 296, was taken on the eve of talks between European Union fisheries ministers in Brussels, set to agree quotas for catches in the Atlantic, North and Baltic Seas as well as the Mediterranean.
The governments of the EU's 27 states agreed in July to extend an agreement allowing EU boats to fish more off Morocco in exchange for annual funding, which campaigners say breaches international law as regards Western Sahara.
Morocco annexed Western Sahara after a Spanish withdrawal in 1976 and Polisario fighters took up arms for an independent state.
The UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991 but a promised self-determination referendum has never been held.
Finnish liberal MEP Carl Haglund said some 36 million euros ($46 million) was "a waste of taxpayers' funds" with no environmental benefit and no economic impact either on the EU or on Morocco.
Others said the withdrawal of the package sent the wrong signal to Morocco for an EU that portrays itself as a big backer of the Arab Spring.
The Polisario Front welcomed the vote.
"This is a legal and political defeat for Morocco, whose expansionist efforts have failed once again," Mohamed Sidati, Western Sahara's minister delegate for Europe, told the SPS news agency.
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