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16/03/2006 04:43 Local Time 
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General Affairs and External Relations Council
Common Foreign and Security Policy
Legal Basis
Policy Instruments
External Trade
Legal Basis
Policy Instruments
Legal Basis
Policy Instruments

The General Affairs and External Relations Council has a dual task. In addition to its institutional and coordinating (horizontal) role with respect to EU policies, the Council also handles the Union's relations with the rest of the world.

Its horizontal role involves the coordination of the Council's work relating to the various sectoral policies, including all issues which do not fall within the competence of the other formations of the Council of the European Union. At the same time, it is responsible for the overall coordination of preparations for European Council meetings.

The role of the General Affairs Council in the conduct of external relations comprises the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the common trade policy. Within the framework of the CFSP, the Council also endeavours to further develop the Common European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).

EU foreign policy is part of a common institutional framework and derives either from classical Community cooperation or from cooperation at intergovernmental level.

The General Affairs Council usually convenes once a month and once during each Presidency for an informal ministerial meeting. The Presidency, the High Representative for Foreign Policy and the External Relations Commissioner work together in order to ensure continuity and coherence in the implementation of EU foreign policy.

Common Foreign and Security Policy

In the 1970s, the Member States decided to cooperate on international policy issues at intergovernmental level. In 1986, the Single European Act formalised this cooperation without changing its nature or methods of operation. However, a substantial change came with the Maastricht Treaty (November 1993) and the establishment of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). For the first time, the Member States incorporated the need for a 'common foreign policy' in the EU's objectives

The CFSP constitutes the so-called 'second pillar' of the EU, in which decision-making and policy implementation differ significantly from the 'first pillar'. Furthermore, the allocation of roles between the Council, the Parliament and the Commission is also different. In particular, the Commission does not have the exclusive right to submit initiatives regarding foreign policy. These mainly originate from the Presidency of the Council (which rotates every six months), a Member State or the High Representative for Foreign Policy. The European Parliament is consulted by the Presidency on the fundamental choices of the CFSP and briefed on the progress made.

In recent years, the Union's Common Foreign and Security Policy has been broadened and strengthened. Two examples of this are the crises in the West Balkans and the Middle East. Meanwhile, the terrorist attacks of 11 September led to the further reinforcement and intensification of intergovernmental cooperation within the framework of the CFSP.

The Common European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) is part of the CFSP. However, the ESDP does not impinge on the specific nature of the security and defence policies of the Member States and is also compatible with the policy implemented in the context of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

The Treaty of Nice introduced the concept of 'enhanced cooperation' among the Member States on specific issues of common foreign policy. If at least eight Member States wish to implement a foreign policy decision, they are entitled to do so without having to secure unanimity.

Legal Basis

The provisions on the CFSP were revised by the Amsterdam Treaty. Articles 11-28 of the Treaty on European Union are devoted specifically to the CFSP.

The Treaty of Nice, signed on 26 February 2001, contains new provisions on the CFSP.


The Common Foreign and Security Policy is aimed at protecting the common values, interests and security of the EU, serving the cause of peace and international security, promoting international cooperation, consolidating the principles of democracy and the rule of law, as well as respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Policy Instruments

The Common Foreign and Security Policy is based on intergovernmental cooperation and decisions are taken unanimously. While unanimity remains the rule and is mandatory for the adoption of decisions with military (defence) implications, there are alternative procedures which allow more flexible decision-making.

The European Council determines the principles and general guidelines of the CFSP, while the General Affairs Council, on the basis of these guidelines, is called to make the necessary decisions with respect to the formulation and implementation of EU foreign policy.

The Presidency of the EU represents the Union in CFSP matters and conducts political dialogue with third countries. The Presidency is assisted by the Secretary-General of the Council, who is also the High Representative for the CFSP. This post was set up by virtue of the Amsterdam Treaty in order to enhance the effectiveness of EU foreign policy. Javier Solana was appointed to the post for a five-year term on 18 October 1999.

The Council is also empowered to appoint special representatives who, in cooperation with the High Representative, are responsible for handling and promoting EU interests in special affairs. The Union currently has special representatives, inter alia, in Afghanistan, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and the Middle East.

The policy instruments of the CFSP include common strategies adopted by the European Council, common actions and positions on which the General Affairs Council takes decisions, as well as the conclusion of international agreements.

So far the EU has adopted three common strategies with regard to Russia, Ukraine and the Mediterranean region. Common actions are adopted in situations which require operational efforts on the part of the EU Member States. An example of common action is the deployment of an EU police mission in Bosnia. Common positions determine the Union's approach to specific geographical or other issues, such as the common position on the prevention of conflict in Africa.

The Common European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) was established in order to carry out civil and military crisis management operations in cases were NATO is not involved. The Cologne European Council (June 1999) placed crisis management tasks (the 'Petersberg Tasks') at the core of the process of strengthening ESDP policy. In December 1999, a headline goal set by the Helsinki European Council stated that the Member States should - by 2003 - be able to deploy military forces of up to 60,000 persons capable of the full range of Petersberg tasks, including humanitarian, rescue, peace-making and peace-keeping missions. At the Laeken European Council  (December 2001) the Union announced that it was ready to undertake some types of autonomous crisis management tasks. However, after the recent NATO Summit in Prague, the declarations regarding the first European operation in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will not be implemented, as originally scheduled, until the end of January 2003. Meanwhile, the operational launching of the European Rapid Intervention Force, based on a number of unanimous decisions taken by European Councils, was officially postponed for at least six months.

External Trade

The objective of the Treaty of Rome was to create a customs union between the Member States in which there would be no barriers to trade, while a common external tariff would be applied to imports from third countries.

Gradually, the growth of international trade led to the adoption of a common commercial policy, which has become one of the most important Community policies. At the same time, successive enlargements and the consolidation of the single market have strengthened the Community's position as a pole of attraction and a major player in trade talks, both in bilateral negotiations with third countries and multilateral negotiations within the framework of GATT (now within the framework of the World Trade Organization). The Union has thus progressively built up a solid worldwide network of trade relations.

In the area of trade policy, it is the EU that generally has the competence to negotiate and conclude agreements with third countries. These agreements mainly involve tariff amendments, the conclusion of customs and trade agreements, as well as protective measures. In other areas of trade policy such as investments, intellectual property and the provision of services, competence is shared. This means that agreements with third countries in these areas may be negotiated and concluded by both the Member States and the EU.

The European Union is today the leading player in international trade, ahead of the United States and Japan, accounting for approximately one-fifth of total world trade. However, the EU's capacity to play a key role in global negotiations depends more on the effectiveness of its common commercial policy rather than its volume of trade.

Legal Basis

External trade relations are specified in Articles 11-28 of the Treaty on European Union, as well as in Articles 131-134 and Articles 177-181 of the EC Treaty.

Article 133 of the EC Treaty gives the European Commission a unique negotiating role in accordance with specific mandates from the Council. In practice, ad hoc coordination procedures allow Member States to be involved in each phase of the Commission's negotiations.

The scope of the common commercial policy, as defined by Article 133, has been interpreted very broadly by the Court of Justice. However, it does not cover international negotiations and agreements relating to services and intellectual property, two areas being discussed within the WTO. The Council can nevertheless extend the scope of Article 133 to include these areas by unanimous agreement following consultation with the European Parliament.


The Union's influence on the international stage hinges on its ability to negotiate with its trade partners as a single entity.

Trade has a fundamental role to play in the creation of wealth and growth. The promotion of fair trade comes under the framework of the Community's broader objectives in relation to development cooperation, in other words the fight against poverty, economic and social development and, in particular, the gradual integration of the developing countries into the global economy.

Policy Instruments

The World Trade Organization is the starting-point for all EU Member States. In addition, the EU concludes bilateral agreements with third countries. Two such agreements have recently been concluded with South Africa (1999) and Mexico (2000).

In trade negotiations taking place within international organisations or at a bilateral level, the General Affairs Council sets out the guidelines to be followed by the Commission. The Commission regularly informs the Council on the progress of its work and, if necessary, is given a new mandate. In addition, the Commission represents the interests of the Member States in disputes with the WTO, while also negotiating the participation of new members in the WTO on behalf of the Member States. In this respect, negotiations with Russia are currently under way.

In the years to follow, the agenda on the Union's trade policy will focus on negotiations within the framework of the new multilateral trade liberalisation round launched at the Doha conference (November 2001). To better integrate the developing countries into the global economy, the agenda of the Doha Round includes agriculture, services, trade, environment and access to medicines.


The origins of the EU's development policy can be traced back to the association linking a number of overseas countries and territories with the European Community when it was created in 1957. Many of these countries gained their independence during the following decade and it was in the interest of both the European states and the newly independent countries to continue working together within a new framework created by the two successive Yaounde Conventions of 1963 and 1969.

The international situation in the early 1970s led to profound changes in Community development policy. The accession of the United Kingdom in 1973 created the need for a more effective cooperation framework with a much larger group of partners. These changes were reflected in the first Lome Convention (1975). This was also a time when cooperation links were strengthened with the countries of North Africa and the Middle East and the EEC began to reach out to Asia and Latin America. In the early 1980s, humanitarian aid was provided on an increased scale to more than 30 countries and thus became a key element of the EU's international presence.

Today, the European Union is the leading partner of developing countries in terms of aid, trade and direct investments. Together, the EU and its Member States provide 55% of all official international development aid.

Although Community development policy has its origins in the Treaty of Rome, it is only since the Treaty on European Union, which came into force in 1993, that Community development cooperation has had a specific legal basis. Meanwhile, a decision was taken to establish a more systematic approach to humanitarian aid by setting up a single decision-making centre to improve the administration and coordination of aid.

Legal Basis

Provisions on development policy are set out in Articles 177-181 of the EC Treaty. Although humanitarian aid is not explicitly mentioned in the Treaty, its legal basis as set out in Article 179, Title XX of the EC Treaty enabled Council Regulation No. 1257/96 of 20 June 1996 to render a clear definition of the European Union's humanitarian aid policy.


The goal of Community cooperation in the area of development policy is stipulated in the Treaty on European Union. In particular, there is a specific reference to the need for encouraging sustainable economic and social development which will help eradicate poverty in developing countries, thus gradually and smoothly integrating these countries into the global economy. At the same time, one of the Union's objectives is to help reinforce democracy and the rule of law, whilst promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Community aid efforts are focused in the following areas:

  • Cooperation with the developing countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP countries) on the basis of the Cotonou Agreement.
  • Cooperation with the developing countries in Asia and Latin America
  • Cooperation with the developing countries of the Mediterranean
  • Food aid and humanitarian assistance

Policy instruments

The codecision procedure enables the European Parliament to play a more decisive role in determining humanitarian aid activities. Community development policy has a number of instruments at its disposal which cover various forms of cooperation, such as conflict prevention and resolution, emergency aid, reconstruction assistance, long-term assistance and trade cooperation.

A statement by the Council and the Commission in November 2000 served as the starting point for efforts to renew Community development policy in order to make it more efficient.

The focus of development policy activities is in the following areas:

  • trade and development
  • regional integration
  • support for macroeconomic policies
  • transport
  • food security and sustainable rural development
  • the strengthening of institutional capacity, especially good governance and respect for the rule of law.

EU humanitarian aid has three main aspects: emergency aid, food aid and aid for refugees and displaced persons.

The main political emphasis in Community development cooperation continues to be on cooperation with the ACP countries. The Cotonou Agreement, which was signed in 2000, sets out the framework for trade relations and development cooperation with these countries. Compared to previous agreements (e.g. Lome), the Cotonou Agreement introduces changes relating to the area of trade, basic principles and in connection with the administration of development cooperation.

In the area of trade, agreement has been reached on the drawing up of regional economic partnership agreements between the EU and various associations of ACP countries. These regional agreements aim to facilitate the access of the ACP countries to the EU market, thereby reinforcing the process of regional integration among those countries. Talks on the agreements began in September 2002 and they are scheduled to enter force by 1 January 2008 at the latest.

The European Commission and the European Investment Bank (EIB) are responsible for administering the flow of Community assistance in accordance with the Council's guidelines. Community aid is extended to more than 100 countries and plays an important role in the economic and political relations between each of these countries and the EU. In addition to grant aid, EIB-administered loans are also extended to the developing countries.

EU humanitarian aid is the responsibility of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), which was set up in 1992. The Union's mandate to ECHO is to provide emergency assistance and relief to the victims of natural disasters or armed conflict outside the Community. The aid is intended to go directly to those in distress, irrespective of race, religion or political convictions. In addition, ECHO follows developments with regard to the humanitarian assistance provided by Member States, which helps improve the general coordination of aid efforts.

ECHO does not itself carry out the various programmes but rather channels the assistance through a series of partner organisations which implement the humanitarian aid in the field. These partners include UN agencies, the Red Cross network, other international agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Since its establishment, ECHO has funded humanitarian aid in more than 85 countries. In 2000, its grants covered emergency aid, food aid and aid to refugees and displaced persons worth a total of almost ECU 485 million.

In 2000, the EU Council of Ministers followed up a general evaluation of ECHO and set out guidelines for the implementation of a number of reforms. The aim of the evaluation was to make Community humanitarian aid more efficient and increase its impact. The guidelines are currently being implemented within the framework of the Commission's general reform work. It is hoped that the reforms will lead to more rapid decision-making with respect to the financing of emergency aid operations and further improve cooperation with UN humanitarian organisations.


Read also

Summary of the intervention of the EU High Representative at the Defence Ministers Meeting (General Affairs and External Relations Council)

A Wider Europe - A Proximity Policy as the key to stability, speech by Romano Prodi



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