Allow me a few personal reflections after more than a decade’s involvement with EFTA and 22 ministerial meetings.
First, it has been an incredibly successful period for the Association, both in its negotiation of free trade agreements, and in the management of the EEA Agreement. We can rightly congratulate ourselves with the efficiency, the flexibility and the hard work which has rendered great results.
We should, however, also recognise that our success has come as a result of the achievements of the EU in creating the Internal Market in the 1990’s and the Uruguay Round which resulted in the setting up of the WTO in 1995. We have perhaps, more than any other group of states, benefitted from these landmark events.
But both the WTO and the EU are now having great difficulties.
The EU and the EFTA countries
The EU is on the defensive today. Its political and financial resources are strained as never before. The euro crisis is putting question marks on the whole European project as we have known it. But it is of crucial importance to the wellbeing of the EFTA countries that the EU finds its way out of the present difficulties with minimum damage to its structures and economies.
In EFTA, we have had nearly two decades of relative peace and harmony in the EEA cooperation with the EU. Lately, there seems, however, to be a new temptation in some quarters to test the boundaries and the strength of the EEA Agreement. Moreover, most of the media coverage of the EEA is about real or perceived difficulties with single decisions. We are seldom presented with the larger picture.
And in this connection, let us not forget that the EEA Agreement was the result of a shared commitment to achieving economic integration in Europe. But a truly integrated internal market is not consistent with a policy of cherry-picking what rules to accept for the internal market from the EFTA side. And, let me add, the rediscovery of the so-called “democratic deficit” cannot be an excuse for such a trend.
The global trading system
On the Geneva side of the EFTA coin, the WTO is also going through a rough period. The standstill in the Doha round has tested the credibility of an organisation, which is of immense importance, not only to the EFTA countries, but to the global trading system as a whole.
This has had an interesting effect on EFTA. During my years as Norwegian Ambassador in Geneva at the turn of the century, EFTA was in a somewhat schizophrenic position, torn and tortured by its loyalty to the WTO on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the perceived need to reach out and open free trade negotiations with important trading partners.
As it became more and more clear, however, that the success of the Uruguay Round could not be taken further through the Doha mandate, EFTA moved quickly, in perfect internal harmony, and set up one of the world’s most impressive free trade networks.
But let’s be clear: Just as with the EU, it is ultimately in the interest of the EFTA countries that the WTO gets its house in order again to preserve and expand the multilateral trading system.
Continued importance of EFTA
At the centre of EFTA, holding the global outreach and the European integration together, are EFTA’s democratic traditions, flexibility and pragmatism. And the scenario I have described, speaks for the continued importance of EFTA as a platform for its members to deal with the future.
In closing, I would like to thank the Ministers for the excellent cooperation. I would also like to thank the colleagues in ESA and the Court as well as the members of the EFTA Council and the Standing Committee, and of course the EFTA staff for their good work during my tenure.
I extend my particular thanks to my Deputies. There are three of them in this room, Bergdís Ellertsdottir, Didier Chambovey and Ivo Kaufmann. It has been a privilege to work with them. Finally, I wish my successor, Kristinn Arnason, the very best success in his leadership of this organisation.
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