European Union lawmakers rejected a one-year extension of the bloc's fisheries agreement with Morocco on Wednesday because of fears the pact would strengthen Rabat's control of the disputed Western Sahara.
The decision will force EU fishermen to leave the waters off Morocco and Western Sahara within days after they had been allowed to operate in the area pending the formal approval of the agreement by the European Parliament.
"Today's vote sends a strong message that the parliament will not accept any deal that ignores the rights of the people of Western Sahara and is in conflict with international law," Spanish Green lawmaker Raul Romeva said in a statement.
"This agreement is a shameful stain on EU foreign policy and it is time it was consigned to the past."
Critics have long questioned the sustainability of the agreement and whether -- as mandated by the United Nations -- it benefits the Sahrawi population living under Moroccan rule.
French centre-right lawmaker Alain Cadec described as meaningless the parliament's decision to reject an agreement two months before it was due to expire, and said the decision would undermine talks on a new long-term fisheries pact with Morocco.
"The European Commission said on Monday that if this accord was not adopted by the parliament, there would be no future fisheries agreement with Morocco," he said in a statement.
The bloc's fisheries chief Maria Damanaki said the Commission would respect the parliament's decision, and propose repealing the provisional approval of fishing rights in the region at a meeting of EU fisheries ministers on Thursday.
"We don't know if a new fisheries protocol with Morocco is possible," she said in a statement. If a new pact were agreed it would have to include more guarantees on environmental sustainability and international legality, she added.
Last year, Damanaki said the Commission could propose a renewal only if Morocco proves the deal will benefit Sahrawis.
Morocco's annexation of Western Sahara in 1975 prompted a rebellion by the opposition Polisario Front. The UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991, but subsequent talks have failed to find a settlement in Africa's longest-running territorial dispute.
The EU pays Morocco about 36 million euros ($47 million) a year to allow its fishermen to fish its waters and those off Western Sahara under an agreement signed in 2007. They catch mainly sardines and octopus. (Editing by Rex Merrifield and Robert Woodward)
The EU considers to pay Morocco to fish in occupied Western Sahara. An EU-Morocco Fisheries Agreement from 2013 would be both politically controversial and in violation of international law.
The international Fish Elsewhere! campaign demands the EU to avoid such unethical operations, and go fishing somewhere else. No fishing in Western Sahara should take place until the conflict is solved.