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International agreements are used to help the EU achieve its policy objectives. They can cover broad areas, such as trade, cooperation and development, or they may deal with specific policy areas such as textiles, fisheries, customs, transport, science and technology.

The EU negotiates and concludes international agreements both with non-EU countries and with international organisations, such as the WTO or the UN.

Exclusive or shared competency?

The EU has exclusive competency to conclude international agreements in certain areas, for example where the agreement would affect common EU rules, or where it is needed to help the EU exercise its internal competences. In areas where the EU has adopted specific common rules, for example customs, member states are no longer able to sign agreements with non-EU countries that affect those rules. The EU also has exclusive competency in these cases and acts on behalf of all member states.

The EU can also sign international agreements in areas where competency is shared with member states, for example foreign affairs.

What does the Council do?

The Council of the EU plays an important role in the negotiation and conclusion of agreements between the EU and non-EU countries or international organisations. It is involved at all stages of the procedure; from providing the mandate for negotiations to the Commission, to signing the agreement on behalf of the EU and adopting the final decision implementing it into EU law.

For agreements covering areas of shared competency with EU member states, representatives from member state governments also have to give their mandate for negotiations. This includes most agreements relating to foreign policy and broad trade agreements.

The Council can also adopt a decision to suspend the application of an international agreement or to terminate an agreement. For example, in 2010 the Council suspended article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement with Zimbabwe, which stopped payment of development aid to the country. The Council takes a decision on the basis of a proposal from the Commission or from the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

How does it work?

The procedure for negotiating and adopting international agreements is set out in articles 207 and 218 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU. Throughout the procedure, the Council mostly takes its decisions using qualified majority voting. However, it votes using unanimity voting in areas where unanimity would normally be needed, such as taxation. For agreements covering areas of shared competency  decisions are taken together with the Council by common accord (agreement of all member states).

The negotiation procedure:

  1. The Commission submits recommendations to the Council on each specific agreement. If the agreement relates mostly to foreign and security policy, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy submits the recommendations.
  2. The Council then adopts a decision authorising the opening of negotiations. It usually also adopts negotiating directives which set out the general objectives to be achieved during negotiations.
  3. The Commission represents the EU during negotiations, except where the agreement relates to foreign and security policy, when the EU is represented by the high representative. Negotiations between the EU and the non-EU parties or international organisation usually take place in different 'rounds'.
  4. For some types of agreement, the Council appoints a special committee which consults with the Commission throughout negotiations. The Commission regularly reports back to this committee and the European Parliament on the progress of negotiations.
  5. The Council can adopt revised or new negotiating directives at any time during negotiations. This would be done to change the negotiating position, or when the negotiator (the Commission) wants to deviate from the previously agreed position.
  6. The Council and the Commission are jointly responsible for checking that the agreements negotiated are compatible with internal EU policies and rules.
  7. At the end of negotiations, the Council adopts a decision on the signature of the agreement. In some cases, the Council also takes a decision on the provisional application of an agreement. These decisions are taken on the basis of a Commission proposal.
  8. The Council also adopts the final decision to conclude the agreement. This can only be done once the European Parliament has given its consent (for association agreements and for areas subject to either the ordinary legislative procedure or consent procedure) and it has been ratified by all EU member states. In other areas, except agreements relating to common foreign and security policy, the European Parliament has to be consulted.