Are trade agreements treaties?

If so, does that mean that trade agreements are agreed by trade envoys and cabinet-level politicians before being presented to the legislature for ratification?

In the US would ratification only involve the senate?

In the UK would an Act need to be passed?

  • 1
    Trade agreements are, typically, non-ratified trade treaties. A treaty assumes a bind to international law. Although the terms are often used interchangeably I believe you need the senate to approve a treaty, and both senate and congress for an agreement in the US. In the UK I believe the parliament has the power of refusal. It's often possible to determine the role and power of parliaments towards treaties based on the potential changes to national legislation. If this happens, you typically need the consent of the legislative body. This is very common in comprehensive trade deals.
    – armatita
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 11:57

1 Answer 1


There isn't one universal precise definition of "treaty", but we can take one from the Vienna Convention on the Law of treaties (a treaty about treaties)

“treaty” means an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments and whatever its particular designation;

Under this definition, it's pretty obvious that any trade agreement between sovereign states is also a treaty.

The precise method of negotiation will vary depending on the states involved and their own constitutional arrangements, but with a very few exceptions will be primarily between delegates of the executive, rather than the legislature.

Regarding ratification, the US constitution says

{the President} hall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; ...

So ratification of formal treaties is a matter for the Senate only (assuming the executive is still trying to conclude it). The situation is somewhat complicated by "executive agreements", and Congressional-executive agreements which aren't treaties as far as the Constitution goes, but have the same effect. In practise, when revenue is involved, then a trade agreement will be dealt with via the last one, requiring simple majorities in the House and Senate.

In the UK, ratification of treaties was historically only a matter for the Government, with Parliament informed as a courtesy. However, following the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, there is now a formal means for Parliament to register an objection, as well as a reconciliation procedure. This has never been used for trade treaties, since those are currently delegated to the EU.

Note that the UK is a dualist state, in which treaties are held to be binding on the government, but not to directly create domestic law. Depending on the content of an agreement, and what power had already been delegated, this could mean nothing needed to be done, a Minister could need to change a regulation via a statutory instrument, or an entire new act needing to be passed.

  • This is a hot issue. The EU is ratifying a lot of trade agreements without ratification by the national governments.
    – A Fog
    Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 11:23

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