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Technical Barriers to Trade

Technical Barriers to Trade result from legal requirements that countries enact to ensure that products are safe, to protect the environment, and to inform consumers, or for reasons of national security.

Trade topics
  • Technical Barriers to Trade

If these legal requirements are used arbitrarily, they may represent hidden restrictions to international trade.

These requirements govern various aspects of a product, such as weight, size, packaging, ingredients, mandatory labelling, or shelf-life conditions. These requirements can take two forms:

  • Technical regulations outlining product characteristics, or related processes and production methods with which compliance is mandatory, and;
  • Standards approved by a recognised body that provides for common use; and rules, guidelines or characteristics for products or related processes and production methods with which compliance is voluntary.

To determine whether the relevant requirements are fulfilled, the responsible authorities or economic operators carry out conformity assessment procedures. These procedures could also be used to unduly restrict trade among countries.

Why do Technical Barriers to Trade matter in international trade?

Products placed on the market need to comply with a whole range of administrative and technical requirements, including testing and certification, which may differ from one country to another.

At times, such different and complex non-tariff measures can become unnecessary trade barriers for millions of companies engaged in international trade. This not only increases their production costs and the time it takes to bring products to market, but also impacts consumers as regards availability, choice and the price of products they would like to purchase.

EU trade policy and Technical Barriers to Trade

EU exporters face a number of difficulties and trade barriers related to these technical requirements, including mandatory standards, and different conformity assessment procedures applicable to products across different jurisdictions.

The EU supports the establishment of a strong, transparent, and rules-based multilateral trading system. It is therefore necessary to prevent the application of measures that unduly restrict international trade.

The EU works together with its Member States and stakeholders to detect and remove measures that unnecessarily restrict trade, and to prevent new ones from being implemented.

The EU seeks to remove these barriers with tools and procedures that are established both multilaterally (within the WTO) and bilaterally (in our agreements with our trading partners).

The EU also engages in regulatory cooperation to help ensure that global rules governing the market are consistent.

Preventing new barriers

At WTO level

The Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (the TBT Agreement) is a multilateral agreement administered by the World Trade Organization (WTO).

While allowing all WTO members to maintain their right to adopt regulations to pursue legitimate objectives – such as the protection of public health, consumers and the environment – the TBT Agreement aims to:

  • Prevent the creation of unnecessary technical barriers to international trade;
  • Prevent the adoption of protectionist measures;
  • Encourage global harmonisation of technical requirements and mutual recognition of test results and certificates, and;
  • Enhance transparency.

The European Union's participation in the TBT Agreement helps businesses in EU Member States access markets in countries outside the EU.

Under the TBT Agreement, WTO members must notify their draft technical regulations and conformity assessment procedures to fellow WTO members.

This gives all WTO members and economic operators advance knowledge of the measures envisaged, to assess their potential impact on exports and to identify any provisions breaching the TBT Agreement.

Companies can use the notification procedure as a source of information on product requirements in non-EU countries. They can make appropriate preparations to make sure their products comply with these requirements.

WTO members can discuss the envisaged measures with the notifying country. The dialogue can result in an amendment of the notified measure, or even in its withdrawal by the notifying country.

More information on how companies can contribute to preventing international trade barriers

In bilateral agreements

The EU has trade agreements with trading partners around the world. These agreements seek to increase cooperation and facilitate trade between EU members and third countries, going beyond the terms of WTO trade.

Our bilateral trade agreements include chapters on Technical Barriers to Trade in which the parties undertake to maintain a continuous dialogue that allows for cooperation and exchange of information on barriers.

The texts of the agreements contain commitments on Technical Barriers to Trade, such as:

  • more consistent use of international standards;
  • a risk-based approach to deciding what conformity assessment procedures should be used for assessing compliance of products;
  • promotion of supplier declarations of conformity (first-party conformity assessments) for low-risk products, as opposed to third-party conformity assessments;
  • promotion of good regulatory practices, and;
  • improved implementation of transparency provisions, to ensure that trade partners are systematically consulted on regulatory initiatives that might significantly influence trade.

These commitments deliver benefits for exporters and consumers from both parties to the agreement, as they remove obstacles to trade and reduce technical barriers to trade.

They also provide increased market access, new opportunities for companies, and more choice for consumers.

More information about the EU’s trade agreements in place and ongoing negotiations

Regulatory cooperation

The EU works together with its trading partners and other stakeholders to build more integrated trading systems. This helps to reduce unnecessary obstacles to trade that domestic regulations may create.

One such example is the EU-US Trade and Technology Council launched in 2021, or the Regulatory Cooperation Forum between EU and Canada envisaged by the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.

Regulatory cooperation can include several different tools, ranging from the informal, such as basic information sharing, to the more formal, which include mutual recognition agreements on conformity assessment and complete harmonisation of regulatory frameworks, such as in the European Economic Area Agreement.

Mutual Recognition Agreements on Conformity Assessment

Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs) on Conformity Assessment provide for mutual recognition between trading partners of mandatory test results and certificates for certain manufactured products.

This makes trade quicker, easier, and cheaper, while maintaining a high level of safety. A business survey from 2022 confirmed the importance of MRAs and the untapped potential offered by such agreements.

MRAs lay down the conditions under which country A will accept conformity assessment results performed by designated conformity assessment bodies of country B to show compliance with the requirements of country A, and vice-versa.

MRAs include specific sectors and relevant lists of designated laboratories, inspection bodies and conformity assessment bodies in both the EU and the partner country.

More information about the EU’s Mutual Recognition Agreements