The European Economic Area (EEA), Switzerland and the North

The European Economic Area (EEA) was set up in 1994 to extend the EU’s provisions on its internal market to the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) countries. The EEA’s parties are Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Switzerland is a member of EFTA but not of the EEA. The EU and Nordic EEA EFTA partners (Norway and Iceland) are also linked by various ‘northern policies’ and forums that focus on the rapidly evolving northern reaches of Europe and the Arctic region as a whole.

Legal basis

For the EEA: Article 217 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (Association Agreements).

For Switzerland: Insurance Agreement of 1989, Bilateral Agreements I of 1999, Bilateral Agreements II of 2004.


A. Objectives

The purpose of the European Economic Area (EEA) is to extend the EU’s internal market to countries in the European Free Trade Area (EFTA). The current EFTA countries do not wish to join the EU. EU legislation relating to the internal market becomes part of the legislation of the EEA EFTA countries once they have agreed to incorporate it. The administration and management of the EEA is shared between the EU and the EEA EFTA countries in a two-pillar structure. Decisions are taken by joint EEA bodies (the EEA Council, the EEA Joint Committee, the EEA Joint Parliamentary Committee and the EEA Consultative Committee).

B. Background

In 1992, the then seven members of EFTA negotiated an agreement to allow them to participate in the ambitious project of the European Community’s internal market, launched in 1985 and completed at the end of 1992. The EEA Agreement was signed on 2 May 1992 and entered into force on 1 January 1994.

The EEA EFTA members, however, soon saw their numbers reduced: Switzerland chose not to ratify the agreement following a negative referendum on the matter, and Austria, Finland and Sweden joined the EU in 1995. Only Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein remained in the EEA. The 10 new Member States that joined the EU on 1 May 2004 automatically became part of the EEA, as did Bulgaria and Romania when they acceded to the Union in 2007. The same was true for Croatia in 2013, although in this case, the agreement on its participation in the EEA has been provisionally applied since April 2014. It will formally enter into force once ratification by all the Member States has been completed.

In June 2009, Iceland applied for EU membership as a way out of the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. The Council accepted Iceland’s application on 17 June 2010, and the negotiations started in June 2011. However, in March 2015, the Icelandic Government stated in a letter to the Council of the EU that ‘Iceland should not be regarded as a candidate country for EU membership’. Although the government did not officially withdraw the application, the EU does not currently treat Iceland as a candidate country.

C. Scope of the EEA

The EEA goes beyond traditional free trade agreements by extending the full rights and obligations of the EU’s internal market to the EEA EFTA countries (with the exception of Switzerland). The EEA incorporates the four freedoms of the internal market (free movement of goods, persons, services and capital) and related policies (competition, transport, energy, and economic and monetary cooperation). The agreement includes horizontal policies strictly related to the four freedoms: social policies (including health and safety at work, labour law and the equal treatment of men and women); policies on consumer protection, the environment, statistics and company law; and a number of flanking policies, such as those relating to research and technological development, which are not based on the EU acquis or legally binding acts, but are implemented through cooperation activities.

D. The limits of the EEA

The EEA Agreement does not establish binding provisions in all sectors of the internal market or in other policies under the EU Treaties. In particular, its binding provisions do not concern:

  • The common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy (although the agreement contains provisions on trade in agricultural and fishery products);
  • The customs union;
  • The common trade policy;
  • The common foreign and security policy;
  • The field of justice and home affairs (although all the EFTA countries are part of the Schengen area);
  • The economic and monetary union.

E. EEA institutions and mechanisms

1. Incorporation of EU legislation

New EU internal market texts are examined by the EEA Joint Committee, composed of representatives of the EU and the three EEA EFTA states. Meeting once a month, this body decides which EU legislation and acts (actions, programmes, etc.) should be incorporated into the EEA. Legislation is formally incorporated by including the relevant acts in lists of protocols and annexes to the EEA Agreement. Several thousand acts have been incorporated into the EEA Agreement in this way. The EEA Council, made up of representatives of the Council of the EU and the Foreign Ministers of the EEA EFTA states, meets at least twice a year to draw up political guidelines for the Joint Committee. The EEA Agreement contains provisions for facilitating input from EEA EFTA countries at various stages of the EU legislative procedure before new legislation is adopted (decision shaping).

2. Transposition

Once an EU act has been incorporated into the EEA Agreement, it must be transposed into the national legislation of the EEA EFTA countries (if this is required under that national legislation). This may simply require a governmental decision, or it may require parliamentary approval. Transposition is a formal task, and the acts can only be adjusted technically at this point.

3. Monitoring

After internal market legislation has been extended to the EEA EFTA countries, transposition and application are monitored by the EFTA Surveillance Authority and the EFTA Court. The EFTA Surveillance Authority maintains an internal market scoreboard that tracks the implementation of legislation in the EEA countries.

4. Role of the parliaments

Both the European Parliament and the national parliaments of the EEA EFTA states are closely involved in monitoring the EEA Agreement. Article 95 of the agreement establishes an EEA Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), which meets twice a year. The European Parliament and the EEA EFTA national parliaments take turns hosting this committee, whose chair alternates annually between a Member of the European Parliament and an EEA EFTA national parliamentarian. Each delegation is composed of 12 members. Parliamentarians from the Swiss Federal Assembly attend the meetings as observers. All EU legislation that applies to the EEA is scrutinised by the EEA JPC, whose members have the right to put oral and written questions to representatives of the EEA Council and the EEA Joint Committee and to express their views in reports or resolutions. The same procedure holds for scrutinising the implementation of legislation. Every year, the JPC adopts a resolution on the Joint Committee’s annual report on the functioning of the EEA Agreement, stating its views on the progress made in the incorporation of EU law and the existing backlog, and making recommendations for the proper functioning of the internal market.


As an EFTA member, Switzerland took part in the negotiations for the EEA Agreement and signed the agreement on 2 May 1992. Immediately after that, the Swiss Government submitted an application for accession to the EU on 22 May 1992. However, following a referendum held on 6 December 1992 that yielded a vote against participating in the EEA, the Swiss Federal Council stopped pursuing the country’s EU and EEA membership. Since then, Switzerland has developed its relations with the EU through bilateral agreements in order to safeguard its economic integration with the EU. Bilateral relations were strained following the February 2014 anti-immigration initiative in Switzerland, the outcome of which called into question the principles of free movement and the single market that underpin those relations. On 16 December 2016, the Swiss Parliament adopted the Federal Act on Foreign Nationals and Integration, implementing the result of the 2014 referendum in a manner that limited its effect, which paved the way for the beginning of the normalisation of EU-Swiss relations.

The EU and Switzerland have signed over 120 bilateral agreements, including a free trade agreement in 1972, and two major series of sectoral bilateral agreements that aligned a large portion of Swiss law with that of the EU at the time of signing. The first set of sectoral agreements (known as Bilateral I) was signed in 1999 and entered into force in 2002. These seven agreements (on the free movement of persons, air transport, land transport, trade in agricultural products, technical trade barriers, public procurement and research cooperation) cover the issues of free movement and mutual market opening. A further set of sectoral agreements (Bilateral II) was signed in 2004 and entered into force gradually over the 2005-2009 period. These agreements relate to strengthening economic cooperation and extending cooperation on asylum and free travel within the Schengen borders. They also cover Switzerland’s participation in the Dublin system, the EU’s MEDIA programme and the European Environment Agency, as well as the taxation of savings, processed agricultural products, statistics, combating fraud and Swiss financial contributions to economic and social cohesion in the new EU Member States.

While the agreements deepened economic relations, they also created a complex and sometimes inconsistent network of obligations. Bilateral agreements have to be updated regularly and do not have the dynamic character of the EEA Agreement. They also lack monitoring arrangements or effective dispute settlement mechanisms. In order to resolve these problems, EU-Swiss negotiations for an Institutional Framework Agreement (IFA) were launched on 22 May 2014. The negotiations sought to solve several difficult issues, ranging from conditions for EU service providers in Switzerland to the role of the Court of Justice of the EU in dispute settlement. Negotiations for the IFA concluded at political level on 23 November 2018. The Swiss Federal Council then launched a broad internal consultation with the relevant Swiss Federal Assembly committees, parties, cantons, social partners and academics/the research community, which will serve as the basis for making a decision about whether or not to submit the agreement for approval to the Swiss Federal Assembly. During the consultation, which concluded in April 2019, a number of issues were raised on which the Swiss side required further clarification.

On 27 September 2020, Switzerland held a popular vote, sponsored by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), on the termination of the agreement with the EU on the free movement of persons. Nearly 62% of voters rejected the SVP’s initiative.

After the popular vote and once the COVID-19 related conditions allowed, discussions on the IFA clarifications resumed in January 2021. However, on 26 May 2021, the Swiss Federal Council informed the European Commission of its decision to terminate the negotiations.

On 23 February 2022, the Swiss Federal Council adopted a set of guidelines for a new negotiating package with the EU, including institutional elements to be included in each existing and future bilateral agreement related to the internal market.

Exploratory talks between the European Commission and representatives of Switzerland’s Federal Council followed on the basis of this alternative approach. On 15 December 2023, the Commission and the Federal Council published a Common Understanding that provides a written record of the outcome of the exploratory talks.

On 8 March 2024, on the basis of the Common Understanding, the Federal Council approved the Swiss negotiating mandate to negotiate with the EU on a broad package of measures to deepen EU-Swiss relations. The Council of the EU authorised the Commission to negotiate on behalf of the EU and approved the negotiating mandate on 12 March 2024. Negotiations were officially launched on 18 March by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Swiss President Viola Amherd.

Northern policies

The EU is actively involved in a number of policies and forums that focus on the rapidly evolving northern reaches of Europe and on the Arctic region as a whole. Notably, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, all cooperation with Russia in this regard was halted. The EU is active in several relevant forums.

  • The Northern Dimension, which has served since 2007 as a common policy for the EU, Russia, Norway and Iceland. This policy has led to effective sector partnerships for cooperation in the Baltic and Barents regions. The Northern Dimension includes a parliamentary body – the Northern Dimension Parliamentary Forum – of which the European Parliament is a founding member.
  • The Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS), launched in 1992 by the EU and the riparian states following the dissolution of the USSR. All CBSS member states participate in the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Conference, of which the European Parliament is also a member.
  • Cooperation in the Barents region, which brings together the northern regions of Finland, Norway and Sweden and the north-west regions of Russia. It is conducted through the sub-state Barents Regional Council, the interstate Barents Euro-Arctic Council (of which the EU is a member), and a parliamentary conference (of which the European Parliament is a member).
  • Circumpolar Arctic affairs: the EU’s Arctic policy is based on Commission/European External Action Service (EEAS) communications (2008, 2012, 2016 and 2021), Council conclusions (2009, 2014, 2016 and 2019) and European Parliament resolutions (2011, 2014, 2017 and 2021). On 16 March 2017, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on an integrated EU policy for the Arctic, and its most recent resolution in this area, entitled ‘The Arctic: opportunities, concerns and security challenges’, was adopted in plenary on 7 October 2021.
  • On 13 October 2021, the European Commission and the EEAS unveiled the new EU policy for the Arctic. Since 2013, the EU has been attending meetings of the Arctic Council, which, however, has still not decided on the EU’s 2008 request for formal observer status. The European Parliament is a member of the Conference of Arctic Parliamentarians.
  • The European Parliament is regularly invited to, and participates in, the annual sessions of the Nordic Council. On 6 October 2020, Parliament’s Conference of Presidents approved the request from the Nordic Council to start more formal relations between the two institutions; EU-Nordic Council interparliamentary meetings are held annually. In addition to this, delegations from the European Parliament and the West Nordic Council (made up of parliamentarians from the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Iceland) meet once a year.


María Álvarez López / Algirdas Razauskas