LUXEMBOURG A top legal adviser to the European Court of Justice said on Wednesday that a trade agreement between Singapore and the European Union cannot be fast-tracked into force, in a case likely to impact Europe's trade strategy.
The European Commission and Singapore completed negotiations on a trade deal in October 2014 but it is still waiting for approval from EU governments and the European Parliament.
Advocate General Eleanor Sharpston said in an opinion that her finding could make it more difficult for the EU to push trade deals through the approval process.
The advocate general's opinion is followed in the majority of cases by judges of the European Court of Justice.
At issue was whether the trade deal was an exclusive competence of the European Union or was part of a shared or 'mixed' competence with the member states.
An EU exclusive deal would require approval from the 28 EU governments and the European Parliament, meaning it can enter force relatively quickly. A mixed deal also requires the approval of national, and in some cases regional, parliaments.
The latter process is lengthy - in the case of an EU-Korea deal provisionally in force in 2011, it took almost five years for the final asset. There is also a higher chance that any deal will be killed off by political opposition to free trade.
"While the Advocate General notes that difficulties may arise from a ratification process involving all of the member states alongside the EU, she considers that that cannot affect the question of who has competence to conclude the agreement," the court said in a statement.
Sharpston said issues such as trade in goods, foreign direct investment and competition matters were exclusive EU competences, but trade in air or maritime transport and provisions on government procurement were not.
The European Union has concluded trade agreements with Canada and Vietnam, but both are still awaiting approval before they can enter force. A deal with Japan could also be close.
It also has the ambition of sealing a trade deal with the United States, although talks are on hold pending Donald Trump's entry into office as U.S. president.
The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada has been the focus of protests by labour unions and environmental groups, which say its system of investor protection will enable multinational companies to dictate public policy.
The Commission had initially decided that CETA was an exclusive competence, but under pressure from EU governments, Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker agreed that it should be mixed. It may enter force provisionally early next year.
(Writing by Philip Blenkinsop; editing by Robin Emmott)