EU’s Approval to Ratify the High Seas Treaty: 101 Explainer

Date: 24th April 2024

The approval on Wednesday, 24 April by the European Parliament for the EU to ratify the High Seas Treaty is a big boost in the #RaceForRatification to ensure that this new important piece of ocean governance that promotes greater ocean protection becomes international law very soon.

The EU is a strange “beast”, and for the non-Brussels connoisseur, a conundrum of processes and institutions. This blog aims to explain the significance of this European Parliament vote, and what that means in terms of reaching the 60 ratifications needed to ensure the new High Seas Treaty (formally known as the United Nations Agreement on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ Treaty) to enter into force next year. 

In March 2023, following years of discussion and negotiation, governments at the UN finally agreed on a text for a new Agreement to protect marine life in areas beyond governments’ maritime boundaries, which includes the High Seas and the seabed beyond the continental shelf,  known as “The Area”. The text was formally adopted, by consensus, on 19 June 2023 and opened for signature in September 2023. It is now up to governments to sign and ratify as soon as possible. 

To date, 89 countries have signed the Treaty and 4 (Palau, Chile, Seychelles and Belize) have formally ratified the High Seas Treaty at the UN. By signing, countries are showing their commitment to ratifying the Treaty. Signing a treaty is a much simpler procedure than ratification, which for many countries often requires a lot of leg work to be done nationally, to amend existing or agree to new legislation in line with the provisions of a new treaty.  

For the EU, the High Seas Treaty is categorised as a “mixed agreement”, which means it falls under the competence of both the EU as well as its European member states. Under EU law, the Treaty needs to be ratified at both the EU level and at EU member state level.

Within the first couple of days of it being opened for signature at the UN, all 27 EU member states and the EU (as a separate legal entity) signed the High Seas Treaty. Since then the focus has been on ratification and the need for at least 60 countries to ratify the Treaty for it to enter into force. 

On 12 October 2023, the European Commission submitted a proposal to the Council of the EU (also known as “the council of ministers” or just simply “the council”) to approve the conclusion (ratification) of the BBNJ Agreement on behalf of the EU. This led to several months of discussions and negotiations within its Law of the Sea Working Group (COMAR), until the Council finally approved its conclusion in March this year. 

The ratification baton was then handed over to the European Parliament, which first entailed a positive vote by the Environment Committee (ENVI) on 18 April before being sent to the European Parliament’s final Plenary of its term, to vote on the EU’s ratification.

With this positive vote in Plenary, just in time before the current Parliament wraps up its work ahead of the European elections in June, the EU has completed its process of approving ratification of the High Seas Treaty. This decision will be formally adopted by the Council, after which the EU will be ready to deposit its “instrument of ratification” at the UN. This is a pretty remarkable feat because coordinating 27 countries has often been compared to herding 27 cats…not easy!

However, the EU and its member states often deposit their ratification of Treaties at the UN together, when the ratification numbers count towards the official tally needed for entry into force. With such a significant number of countries, this can often have a decisive impact on the status of Treaties, although in this instance the EU does not count as an additional ratification in the total UN number.

So what does this now mean for the EU and the High Seas Treaty? 

With the EU ratification process wrapped up, all eyes are now firmly on the member states to move their national ratification processes along swiftly. For each country, this process can be slightly different. As new legislation and Parliamentary approval is often needed, this step of the process is likely to take more time. So far, no EU member state has finalised its ratification process nationally.

That said, getting ratification done by the 3rd UN Ocean Conference in June 2025 in Nice, France, has now become the ratification north star for many governments, so we can celebrate the Treaty securing the 60 ratifications required for it to enter into force at this key international ocean event. 

The EU played a leading role in the negotiations of the High Seas Treaty, and approving ratification swiftly underlines this continued leadership. We now need to see this leadership translate into swift action by all EU member states to usher ratification of the Treaty through their national processes, with support and encouragement from the European Commission. 

 Leadership by the EU members is now critical to ensure the #RaceForRatification does not turn into a  #MarathonForRatification!

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