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External relations - Trade - Development

1. EU foreign policy – definition and branches

With territory extending from the Atlantic to the Black Sea and a population of approximately 490 million, the European Union has become an international actor with formidable economic and political influence. The EU’s foreign policy power has increased with every enlargement. The current membership of twenty-seven countries empowers the Union to get active in different regions of the world.

The Treaty of Maastricht (or, “Treaty on the European Union”) transformed the economic-based European Economic Community (EEC) into a political entity, capable of meeting Europe’s growing aspirations in the international arena. To facilitate this diversification, the Treaty set out a three-pillar internal structure for the EU.

European Union structure:

  • First pillar European Communities (European Commission)
  • Second pillar Common Foreign and Security Policy (Council of the European Union)
  • Third pillar Police and Judicial Cooperation in criminal matters (Council of the European Union)

In reference to the EU’s foreign policy, the European Union is not a legal entity as such. Only the first pillar of the EU incorporates legal authority, and the European Commission bears the sole responsibility of representing the EU to the outside political world. In the second and third pillar, intergovernmental agreements continue to be predominant and the making and implementation of decisions are ultimately up to each member state. Nevertheless, actions taken by the Commission, the member states and the institutions in the second and third pillar all in their part define European Union’s foreign policy and promote the interests of the EU on the international political arena.

The term “external relations” in an EU context covers all aspects of the EU’s foreign affairs except for trade and development.

The following explains the complex structure and content of the European Union's external relations policy, which is shaped by the Commission, the European Parliament, the Council and the Member States.

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