This year it is 25 years since the EEA agreement entered into force. What was intended as a waiting room for EU membership has become a permanent abode.
- What is the EEA Agreement?
- Why is Norway involved?
- How has the EEA agreement developed?
- What is EFTA?
Through the EEA agreement, Norway has changed. When the EEA agreement entered into force, Norway went from being a country outside the EU, to becoming an equal participant in the EU’s internal market , with the same market access, rights and obligations for Norwegian companies and citizens as for actors from the EU. -land (see fact box).
Today, the economic connection with the 28 EU states (so far including the United Kingdom) is crucial for Norway. The relationship is almost entirely regulated by the EEA Agreement, which is thus far more than a free trade agreement: It includes rules for trade in services, establishment of businesses, labor migration, and a number of other areas such as research, education and state aid.
By and large, the EEA Agreement has worked well and safeguarded Norwegian interests. In some individual cases, there have been conflicts over parts of the co-operation, for example related to working life and migration, but overall there has been a relatively low level of conflict around the EEA agreement. The majority have simply found the alternatives more uncertain and less attractive.
2: The narrow birth of the EEA Agreement
Two elements formed the basis for the EEA. First, there was a fundamental dissatisfaction in the EFTA States , including Norway, with the agreements that applied prior to the EEA. The free trade agreements Norway had with the EU before the EEA agreement provided duty-free access for large parts of Norwegian industrial exports, but already when they entered into force, they were seen as outdated. For example, they do not include service trade. The EFTA countries therefore wanted to expand cooperation with the EU.
By the mid-1980s, the EU had seriously revived its idea of establishing the single market. The goal was originally to establish the internal market by 1992. The EFTA countries, which at the time were the EU’s most important trading partner, feared being excluded from this new market, and therefore had a strong desire to join the process.
The EU, for its part, did not want a rapid enlargement of the EU to the EFTA countries, as some feared that this could slow down the work of completing the EU’s internal market. The answer to both of these challenges eventually became the idea of establishing a European Economic Area , ie the EEA.
Today, it is easy to look back on the EEA and think that this was a straightforward and natural negotiation process. It was not. The scope made the EEA something very special. The negotiations were a demanding political race in most countries, also in Norway, where Jan P. Syse’s Conservative / KrF / Sp government broke down after only a year in the work of negotiating the agreement.
The EEA agreement was negotiated at a time of great societal change: When EFTA and the EU first decided to start negotiations on the EEA in the spring of 1989, Europe was still divided into East and West. By the end of the negotiations, the Berlin Wall had fallen, Germany had been reunited and the Soviet Union had disintegrated. These extensive upheavals were to have a major impact on how the EEA actually became. Non-aligned EFTA states such as Switzerland, Austria and the two Nordic countries Sweden and Finland could now rethink their security and foreign policy.
During the negotiations, several of the EFTA countries lost interest in the EEA. Instead of seeing it as a permanent solution, the EEA was increasingly seen as a transitional arrangement pending EU membership. Austria, Sweden and Finland applied for membership in the union, as did Norway. In addition, Switzerland decided that they still would not join. The EEA agreement was therefore close to becoming irrelevant before it entered into force.
When Norwegian EU membership was voted down in the referendum in 1994, it was clear that the new EEA was going to be something quite different than previously envisioned. When the negotiations began, there were twelve states on the EU side and seven states on the EFTA side. When the agreement entered into force, there were 15 countries on the EU side, while there were only three left on the EFTA side: Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. The ambition for a collaboration between two equal partners was thus weakened from the start. We can safely say that the EEA agreement had a narrow birth, and few thought that the agreement would last very long. The aftermath has shown that the skeptics were wrong.
3: Static, but…
The EEA agreement regulates relations with the 28 member states of the EU, as well as with Iceland and Liechtenstein. It consists of a main body, protocols and declarations, as well as a number of appendices that refer to comprehensive legislation in which large parts of EU law have been incorporated. According to Biotionary, EEA stands for European Economic Area.
The main part of the EEA agreement has been fixed and provided a predictable framework for Norway’s relations with the EU. It has never been renegotiated or changed. That in itself is remarkable, especially since the EU has amended its treaties several times.
At irregular intervals, there have been calls for renegotiating the EEA agreement, but such wishes have never been put forward. The reasons are several. The most important are that the EEA agreement has worked, that the parties have been flexible in finding solutions that the parties can agree on, that they have succeeded in finding solutions within the framework and that they have supplemented with solutions outside the agreement where necessary.
In addition, the balance of power has shifted in favor of the EU side. Everyone knows what they have, but not what they could possibly get if the negotiations reopen. The Norwegian authorities have also been cautious about requesting renegotiations.