The Agreement on the European Economic Area (EEA) unites the 27 EU Member States and the three EFTA EEA States, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, in one Internal Market governed by the same basic rules and legislation. These rules cover the four freedoms, i.e. free movement of goods, capital, services and persons, plus competition rules and horizontal areas related to the four freedoms to ensure harmonised legislation in the EEA.

To underpin the development of the Internal Market, the EU has established programmes and actions to strengthen cooperation outside the four freedoms. In these areas, "soft" instruments are applied, usually in the form of project funding and studies. The EEA Agreement covers such cooperation, thereby extending these EU programmes to the EEA EFTA States.

The fourth EFTA State, Switzerland, is not part of the EEA but negotiates separate agreements with the EU for each programme in which it participates.

Article 78 of the EEA Agreement calls for the EU and the EEA EFTA States to strengthen and broaden their cooperation in the framework of the Community's activities outside the four freedoms in ten specific fields:

  • Research and technological development
  • Information services and security of information systems
  • Environment
  • Education, training and youth
  • Social policy
  • Consumer protection
  • Enterprise, entrepreneurship and small and medium-sized enterprises
  • Tourism
  • The audiovisual sector
  • Civil protection

Cooperation in these fields is defined in separate articles of Protocol 31 of the EEA Agreement. Article 87 of the Agreement, however, permits cooperation to be broadened even further, "where such cooperation is considered likely to contribute to the attainment of the objectives of the Agreement, or is otherwise deemed […] to be of mutual interest".

Other articles have therefore been added to Protocol 31. These cover the following fields:

  • Trade facilitation
  • Transport and mobility
  • Culture
  • Energy programmes and environment-related energy activities
  • Employment
  • Public health
  • Telematic interchange of data
  • Exchange between administrations of national officials
  • Reduction of economic and social disparities

The different articles of Protocol 31 give detailed information on exactly which EU programmes have been extended to the EEA EFTA States. Whenever the EU adopts a new programme in any of the fields above, the decision, in principle, often provides for EEA EFTA participation.

To enable such participation, a specific decision must be taken by the EEA Joint Committee to allow for a reference to the adopted EU programme to be inserted into Protocol 31. Although this may sound simple, the legal procedures involved consist of many steps and can take between three and six months to be completed. For this reason, EEA EFTA participation is often only formally established some time after the start of an EU programme. Flexible arrangements may be found, however, to enable EEA EFTA partners to take part in early calls for proposals for a new programme, for example.

EU programmes and activities that fall outside the objectives of the EEA Agreement are normally not open to EEA EFTA participation. In some cases, the distinction may not be clear, and as Article 87 of the Agreement also allows for new fields to be considered, the question of EEA relevance can sometimes only be solved through specific negotiations.

The EEA Agreement does not oblige the EEA EFTA States to participate in EU programmes that fall under the above fields. For each relevant programme, the EEA EFTA States must submit a request to the EU for formal participation, in accordance with Article 79 of the Agreement. The number of programmes included from the start of the Agreement in 1994, however, shows that the intention on both sides has been to incorporate the most major relevant programmes into the EEA Agreement.

EEA EFTA participation in 15 EU programmes and actions in 1994 was gradually extended to cover more than 30 programmes in 2002. Since 2007, many of these programmes have been merged into fewer and larger programmes. 

Through the EEA Financial Mechanism and the Norwegian Financial Mechanism, the three EEA EFTA States - Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway - contribute to the reduction of social and economic disparities in Europe, and support new EU Member States in their efforts to participate fully in the enlarged Internal Market. The establishment of the financial mechanisms was agreed with the EU in the lead-up to the 2004 and 2007 enlargements of the EU, which entailed an enlargement of the EEA with 12 countries. Through these mechanisms, a wide range of public authorities and institutions, organisations and businesses in the beneficiary states are eligible for grant support to realise projects. These mechanisms will make more than EUR 300 million available annually to support projects in a wide range of priority sectors linked to EU programmes, such as research, cultural heritage, sustainable development, health and childcare.

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EEA Seminar - 9 March 2023