On Tuesday 19 May, the EFTA Parliamentary Committee (EFTA PC) held its second meeting since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, under Norwegian chairmanship. The aim was to discuss the relations between the EFTA States and the EU, and the status of the Internal Market amidst the COVID-19 crisis.
“The relations between the EFTA States and the EU are especially close and based on comprehensive agreements like the EEA, the bilateral Swiss and Schengen. With a pandemic that knows no borders, our cooperation has become even more essential, ranging from health to economic cooperation, collaboration in research projects, to finding a vaccine or managing our borders,” said Svein Roald Hansen, Chair of the EFTA PC.
The Committee discussed the prospects for the future and the role that EFTA States are playing in sustaining and developing their relations with the EU. To contribute to the debate, several external speakers were invited to provide their insights on the issue.
The Committee was joined by Ambassador Rolf Einar Fife, Chair of the EFTA Standing Committee and Head of the Norwegian Mission to the EU. He outlined how the cooperation with the EU has evolved over the last couple of weeks through the structure of the EEA Joint Committee.
“I am pleased to note that, despite the circumstances, we maintain regular videoconference meetings in the EEA Joint Committee and preparatory fora. We have been able to make progress on important legislation, thanks to great efforts on both sides,” Ambassador Fife said.
He also looked beyond solving the crisis, highlighting some major priorities for the three EEA EFTA States such as the European Green Deal, “which the EEA EFTA States warmly welcome”, he said. Other important priorities include the modernisation and digitalisation of the Internal Market, relations with the UK and the new Multiannual Financial Framework (2021-2027). All these topics will be discussed with the EU at next week‘s informal EEA Council on 25 May 2020.
Bente Angell-Hansen, President of the EFTA Surveillance Authority (ESA), discussed the role of ESA in providing measures for easing the economic loss during the coronavirus outbreak, such as approving compensation and guarantee schemes.
“The coronavirus pandemic presents extraordinary economic and social challenges for EEA businesses and consumers. ESA is fully aware of the seriousness of the situation and the need for urgent information. ESA has set up a dedicated task force to assist the Icelandic, Liechtenstein and Norwegian authorities with any queries they have or measures they would like to discuss. ESA is committed to handling any queries in a swift and efficient manner,” she said.
Ambassador Urs Bucher, Head of the Swiss Mission to the EU, provided an insight into the cooperation with the EU during the coronavirus pandemic through the Swiss bilateral agreements.
“We have never experienced times like the COVID-19 pandemic. We are slowly getting through the worst medical challenges, but for the future it is important the situation will not create new barriers to trade,” Ambassador Bucher said.
Briefings from the EU side
The COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected economies and societies globally. A challenging situation occurred when the pandemic reached Europe and states started closing their borders unilaterally, which put both European solidarity and the Internal Market under strain. Kerstin Jorna, the newly appointed Director-General of DG GROW, and Andreas Schwab, President of the EEA Joint Parliamentary Committee and the EPP coordinator in the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee in the European Parliament (IMCO) joined the meeting to discuss the EU’s immediate response to the pandemic.
“The EEA is the world’s largest and strongest market, which gives the participating countries a unique platform to cooperate. The EU has also cooperated intensively with Switzerland since the outbreak occurred. In addition, allow me to thank Norway for sending medical care workers to Bergamo when the crisis was peaking in Italy and to thank Switzerland for admitting patients from EU countries into Swiss hospitals. This kindness shows the solidarity of European partner countries,” Ms Jorna said.
MEP Schwab agreed that a strong European internal market could be a decisive factor against the pandemic.
“In a globalised world we can only stand up for our European values together. We now need a rapid restoration and strengthening of the European internal market,” he said.
The EFTA Parliamentary Committee is a forum for parliamentarians from the four Member States: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. It provides EFTA with a valuable link to political life in each EFTA country and, through its cooperation with parliamentarians in the European Union, serves as a link between political life in EFTA and the EU. The role of the parliaments remains crucial in this time of pandemic crisis in order to ensure democratic accountability of the measures taken. During the COVID-19 crisis, the EFTA Parliamentary Committee are hosting a series of digital meetings.
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