Comparing EU and EFTA Trade Agreements: Drivers, Actors, Benefits, and Costs

30-05-2016

EFTA states have built up a network of 26 preferential trade agreements (PTAs) with 37 partners, compared to more than 120 trade agreements concluded by the EU with more than 45 partners. There are substantial differences between EU and EFTA PTAs in terms of scope and ambition. EFTA agreements still focus on traditional areas of market access, while the post-1990 EU agreements are more elaborate, values-driven, political and comprehensive. As a bloc, the EU has more leverage when it negotiates around the world. The size of its market and its highly developed common policies mean that the EU can bring more to the negotiating table and has stronger tools to enforce its economic interests and political conditions compared to the smaller EFTA states whose political and economic cooperation is limited. Although the EFTA states do not form a customs union like the EU, they usually negotiate PTAs as a group, bringing their combined economic and political weight to bear. However, they retain the right to reach bilateral trade agreements with third countries outside the EFTA framework, such as Switzerland's PTAs with Japan and China, and Iceland's bilateral PTA with China. EFTA's small size nonetheless has some benefits. Since EFTA states are not so constrained by — often diverging — interests they can be more flexible in their negotiations. In some cases EFTA has concluded trade deals relatively quickly compared to the EU, but this has been at the expense of relatively shallow trade agreements.

EFTA states have built up a network of 26 preferential trade agreements (PTAs) with 37 partners, compared to more than 120 trade agreements concluded by the EU with more than 45 partners. There are substantial differences between EU and EFTA PTAs in terms of scope and ambition. EFTA agreements still focus on traditional areas of market access, while the post-1990 EU agreements are more elaborate, values-driven, political and comprehensive. As a bloc, the EU has more leverage when it negotiates around the world. The size of its market and its highly developed common policies mean that the EU can bring more to the negotiating table and has stronger tools to enforce its economic interests and political conditions compared to the smaller EFTA states whose political and economic cooperation is limited. Although the EFTA states do not form a customs union like the EU, they usually negotiate PTAs as a group, bringing their combined economic and political weight to bear. However, they retain the right to reach bilateral trade agreements with third countries outside the EFTA framework, such as Switzerland's PTAs with Japan and China, and Iceland's bilateral PTA with China. EFTA's small size nonetheless has some benefits. Since EFTA states are not so constrained by — often diverging — interests they can be more flexible in their negotiations. In some cases EFTA has concluded trade deals relatively quickly compared to the EU, but this has been at the expense of relatively shallow trade agreements.