In September 2022, four Brussels parliamentarians from the French-speaking liberal party Mouvement Réformateur (MR) travelled to Morocco at the invitation and expense of the Moroccan parliament. What is interesting, La Libre Belgique reports, is that the MPs were brought to the city of Laâyoune, the largest city in the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
After the end of Spanish colonialism in the region in 1975, Morocco de facto annexed the Western Sahara region following a bloody conflict between Mauritanian and Moroccan forces against the Sahrawi independence movement, led by the Polisario Front. The region is currently three-quarters controlled by Morocco and a quarter controlled by sovereign Sahrawi forces.
According to the UN, the region is considered a “non-self-governing territory” and a non-decolonised territory. De Jure, Spain is still considered to be the administering state. Morocco’s annexation of the region is illegal under international law. Belgium, like the UN, does not recognise Morocco’s control over the region.
The trip of the four Brussels MPs, David Leisterh, David Weytsman, Clémentine Barzin, and Gaëtan Van Goidsenhoven, may have initially gone unnoticed in the Belgian press, but caused a stir in Morocco’s newspapers. The local press reported that members of the Belgian delegation were “impressed” by Morocco’s remarkable development of the region.
Moroccan media reports that Leisterh, president of the Brussels branch of MR, spoke positively of the development projects in Laâyoune. According to the president of the disputed commune, the visit served as “an opportunity for the delegation of Belgian parliamentarians to see firsthand the climate of peace and security in the region.”
The MPs' visit became propaganda for local Moroccan media, which painted the Moroccan government’s presence in the region positively.
Now, the visit has come under renewed scrutiny following allegations of active Moroccan corruption in the European institutions in the Qatargate scandal, which has also implicated Morocco. Former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri admitted on Tuesday his involvement in Qatari and Moroccan corruption within the European Parliament.
In a comment to La Libre Belgique, Morocco's Ambassador to Belgium assures that the MPs visit to the region, and the disputed territories, was nothing .
“The Moroccan Parliament regularly invites elected officials from different countries to inquire about the situation in the southern territories and the reality on the ground… And this, all while the propaganda carried by certain circles internationally presents them as territories at war, unstable, where human rights are not respected,” said Mohamed Ameur.
In recent years, Morocco has channeled its resources in protecting its strategic interests on the world stage, notably to inform opinion on the status of Western Sahara.
The visit of the Brussels MPs to the region does not involve the allegations of corruption levelled against Morocco in the context of Qatargate, but still raises questions about the role of the elected Belgian officials in Moroccan propaganda efforts.
One of the politicians to visit the region, Van Goidsenhoven, assures that the trip was motivated by “an interest in the Sahel region”, especially in the context of jihadism and security in the area. Van Goidsenhoven had previously visited Morocco in 2012.
“It was a parliamentary diplomatic mission. We kept our free will. We wanted to see the situation in Western Sahara on the ground. The Moroccan Embassy offered us visits. We also had more difficult exchanges about the history of Western Sahara,” Brussels MR leader Leisterh said.
The MR representatives are not the first to visit Western Sahara. In 2010, a group of elected officials from the Socialist Party (PS), MR, and Les Engagés (then Social-Christian party) took part in the government organised “Raid des Marocains du monde” (Raid of the Moroccans of the World).
Other officials to travel to Morocco include Wallonia Minister-President Elio Di Rupo (PS), Rudi Vervoort (PS), and Pascal Smet (Vooruit). These politicians did not visit Western Sahara. MR party leader Georges-Louis Bouchez also visited Morocco in 2022 at the invitation of “Moroccan liberals'' but refused to answer questions about whether he travelled to the southern region.
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Just as in the case of un-sanctioned trips by Belgian MEPs to Qatar, the MR deputies declined to inform Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib of their trip. Upon her trip a month later to Morocco, she would express her support for Morocco’s efforts to settle the status of the region.
Several professors of international law have complained that Belgium has “ignored the rights of the people of Western Sahara” with its visits.
In response to whether the Brussels MR leader would visit the region again, he answered affirmatively. “I would do it again, yes… Of course, it bothers me that some use my arrival to legitimise Moroccan politics. But we can’t control everything.”