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Procedure for the adoption of international agreements

The procedure for the adoption of international agreements consists of several phases. The Council adopts the recommendations spelling out the Commission's negotiating brief. The Commission then negotiates the agreement and signs it with the Council. Parliament is always consulted and must give its approval in certain cases. Finally, the Council concludes the agreement. The Court of Justice may be asked to verify its validity.

The procedure for the adoption of international agreements concluded between the European Union (EU) and a non-member country or organisation is set out in Article 218 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). It takes place in several phases.

Initiative

The Commission has the initiative, in exercising its general power, to represent the EU. It presents recommendations to the Council for initiating negotiations. In accordance with the 'comitology' procedure the recommendations are prepared by the relevant Commission departments in consultation with national experts.

Moreover, when an agreement relates exclusively to the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the recommendations are drawn up by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Negotiation

The Commission conducts negotiations, but acts on the mandate of the Council. Thus, the Council adopts a decision authorising the opening of negotiations. It may address directives to the Commission establishing the framework under which the negotiations must be conducted.

The Commission then conducts negotiations in cooperation with Member States. Their involvement in the process depends on the field in which the agreement relates to:

  • when the agreement relates to a field in which the EU has exclusive competence, the Commission is the sole negotiator, although national experts are closely involved in the proceedings through the special committees in accordance with the rules laid down by the 'comitology' procedure;
  • when the agreement relates to a field of shared competence, negotiations are conducted jointly by the Commission and national experts.

The approval or consultation of the European Parliament

The Treaty of Lisbon has increased the role of the European Parliament in the procedure for adopting international agreements considerably. Therefore, the approval of the Parliament is required for:

  • all agreements covering fields in which the ordinary legislative procedure or the special legislative procedure are to be applied within which the approval of the European Parliament was required;
  • association agreements between the EU and third countries;
  • agreements creating a specific institutional framework by organising cooperation procedures (for example, when the agreement in question creates a joint committee with decision-making powers);
  • agreements which have notable budgetary implications for the EU;
  • an agreement on EU membership of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms;
  • agreements on the accession of a State to the EU.

For all other agreements, approval by the Parliament is not required, but it must be consulted during the negotiations procedure.

Conclusion

The procedure is in three phases:

  • the Commission signs the text of the agreement but this is subject to subsequent adoption by the Council. It presents the Council with two proposals, one for signing and the other for concluding the agreement.
  • the Council adopts a decision (in some cases a regulation) on signing the agreement. Moreover, the provisional application, which is designed to ensure that the agreement can apply without delay, may stem either from a provision of the decision on signing or from an interim agreement signed in parallel
  • the Council adopts a decision actually concluding the agreement; this is deemed to constitute ratification of the agreement. In the case of hybrid agreements the adoption is accompanied by a procedure for ratifying the agreement within each Member State in accordance with their respective constitutional rules.

As a rule, decisions concluding agreements are adopted by the Council by qualified majority of the votes. However, the Council acts unanimously for:

  • association agreements between the EU and third countries;
  • agreements in areas subject to unanimity.

Furthermore, Article 207 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU adds two other specific cases in which the Council may act unanimously:

  • agreements in the field of trade in cultural and audiovisual services;
  • agreements in the field of trade in social, education and health services.

Consultation of the Court of Justice

The Court may be asked by the Council, the Commission, the European Parliament or a Member State to verify the validity of an agreement - both the formal validity (compliance with the relevant adoption procedure) and the substantive validity (compliance with the acquis). If the Court's opinion is adverse, the agreement has to be revised before it can enter into force.

Last updated: 20.08.2010
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