“Current Concerns: The bigger the difficulties in the euro zone become, the louder the reflection about possible alternatives is perceived in the whole of Europe. The “civilian coalition” in Germany decidedly pleads for the “Europe of nations” to be worked for. Thus sovereign countries could and would have to take up their own responsibilities again and regulate their concerns on a free basis. For this, the EFTA would be the appropriate context, and this is what was imagined for a co-operation in Europe after the Second World War.
Mr Zbinden, should there not be more talk about the EFTA and information about its way of working?
Martin Zbinden: The EFTA itself has three main areas of activity which firstly include the EFTA Convention, which provides the free trade relations between the EFTA States. Secondly EFTA membership implies observer status in the EEA, which is useful because it permanently provides us with so-to-speak first-hand information, especially on the further development of EU law and EEA law. For Switzerland, the most important aspect certainly is the EFTA as a platform for joint negotiations of free trade agreements, and in this respect the EFTA is, as you say, very successful. Cooperation between the EFTA states is generally very good. Of course there are some differences. It is clear that Norway and Switzerland do not have the same economic structure, for example, there is Norway’s huge oil and gas sector, since we have nothing comparable, and fish exports are very important for Norway and Iceland, too, which, so to speak, is less important for Switzerland. We have strengths in other areas, such as the chemical industry, pharmaceutical and engineering industries and in services, including financial services. So there are differences between the EFTA states, but when it comes to trade policy, we are very much alike in our focus on free trade, and therefore the cooperation on the whole is very good.
Another similarity is certainly agricultural policy. All four EFTA members are net importers in the field of agriculture, yet for all four EFTA states border protection in agriculture is very important. Therefore we also work together in terms of agricultural policies in the WTO, in the group of the G-10 countries.
So together with the other three EFTA states?
Exactly. The group of G-10 countries consists of nine members, including all four EFTA members.
If I am correctly informed, agricultural policies were one of the reasons why Federal Councillor Wahlen pushed the idea of EFTA very vigorously at that time, in order to stay independent in this area. For states with different interests, the EFTA seems to provide the opportunity to cooperate in those areas where they want to, instead of having to lump everything together.
Yes, one can certainly say that. When the EFTA was founded, it was actually a counter-project to the European Economic Community. It was not a customs union, and in this sense the sovereignty in trade policy was respected, while trade policy within the EEC was communalised as a customs union.
Switzerland regarded this as incompatible with neutrality. We are talking about the time of the late fifties, early sixties. At that time the EFTA really was a sort of a counter-project to the European Economic Community, with the idea that you only cooperated in selected areas and did not create supranational institutions, but simply cooperated in what areas you wanted on the basis of a free trade area, but retained sovereignty in all other economically or politically relevant areas.
Looking at the development of the EFTA, it must be said that it has been a success story in many ways. Do you agree with that?
Here we must distinguish. Regarding the number of members it was, of course, vastly reduced. Finland left the EFTA for the EU, just as Sweden, and also Austria left and has gone over to the EU. Thus you have to say it has become a very small organisation. It was successful with free trade relations. Since the early nineties, the EFTA has been able to build up a relatively large network of free trade agreements, and it has certainly done that very successfully. At first, always more in alignment with the EU – that is, so to speak, a step behind the EU with the countries with which the EU had concluded agreements. The first time that the EFTA started such negotiations without the EU in mind was in 1999 with Canada. Since then it has considerably extended this policy.
So in principle, the EFTA is an organisation that independently initiates and concludes negotiations wherever it appears interesting and worthwhile for its member states as sovereign countries?
Absolutely. In its specificity it was sometimes a step behind the EU, but conversely, the EFTA was far ahead in Korea for example. The EU has only just concluded a treaty, which came into effect on July 1st, while that of the EFTA states has been in force for five years. And we signed the agreement before the EU had even spoken about taking up negotiations. So, there are both: with Mexico and Chile, we were behind the EU, with Korea and Singapore we were ahead. We have now concluded a treaty with the Ukraine – the EU is still in negotiations. With the Gulf Cooperation Council, the EU started negotiations ahead of us, but we were finished much earlier. It varies – depending on the partner.
Where do you see the difference in the negotiating positions?
In most cases, the EU negotiates not only free trade agreements but also association agreements, which cover much wider policy areas including a policy dialogue, seeking some harmonisation in certain fields of the law. That’s not what the EFTA does. We limit ourselves to traditional comprehensive free trade agreements, i.e. liberalisation in the trade in goods, liberalisation and legal certainty in trade and services. Investment is partly covered, intellectual property is covered, public procurement and certain competition rules are contained in the agreement, with the latest agreement including certain regulations on trade and sustainable development. But a political dialogue or comprehensive cooperations, for example, in energy or transportation policy, which the EU often has in its agreements, are things that the EFTA does not have.
The possibility of free economic cooperation, while respecting sovereignty obviously corresponds to a need in many countries.
As I said, the EFTA as an organisation is very small. But the free trade agreements we conclude – they are very attractive for many states. It is not only the way how the EFTA negotiates free trade agreements. I think the free trade agreement instrument in itself is something that is currently very successful. That is, of course, partly also connected to the difficulties the WTO has.
Despite your emphasis on the smallness of the EFTA, it shows that for a free economic co-operation it is not necessary to establish a centralised superpower organisation that stifles the freedom and responsibility of the participating countries.
Yes. I think the instrument of free trade agreements is an economically and commercially attractive instrument. One must not, however, set this in opposition to the WTO. The WTO provides so to speak the basic rules governing the world trading system and free trade agreements build on it.
To another point: A very impressive aspect of of the EFTA is the lean administration – only 90 staff, which is nowadays proof of an excellent performance.
Yes, that’s certainly an advantage of the EFTA. Of course we are only a few member states, only four, we have only one working language, the official language is English. In comparison with the Commission, which has a lot more responsibilities and which works in I do not know how many languages and for 27 countries and has, to some extent, also regulatory functions. This is, of course, not comparable to the EFTA Secretariat. This is effectively a secretariat, which means that the main work is done by the member states …
… as part of their foreign policy …
Yes, the free trade agreements are trade policy. The negotiations for free trade agreements are always conducted by the member states. The EFTA Secretariat serves to assist member states by preparing texts, ensuring that texts are exchanged with the negotiating partners – these are the things that are organised by the EFTA Secretariat. But the real work, wording the texts in terms of contents, is done by the Member States. Therefore, the EFTA Secretariat is a genuine secretariat, which guides and supports the process, but the process itself remains in the hands of the member states.
Thank you for your time.“