EFTA widens trade agreement network


The European Free Trade Association (EFTA) is spreading its network of trade agreements and will shortly start talks on a deal with India, reflecting a new Asian focus, its secretary-general said on Wednesday.


Kare Bryn said negotiations on a trade and investment agreement with India would start in the next two months.


Trade between India and EFTA's four members Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland is currently not high but is growing fast and has big potential, he told a news conference.


EFTA, founded in 1960 as a counterweight to the European Economic Community, which developed into the European Union, originally aimed to liberalise trade among its members.


It previously included Britain, Portugal, Austria, Finland and Sweden until they left to join the EU.


Now the focus is on trade deals with other countries, although EFTA sees these as contributing to the global trading system run by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), he said.


"The objective from our point of view is to further the multilateral process," Bryn said. "You might say the aim of EFTA is to make itself redundant."


EFTA members conduct about 74 per cent of their trade with the European Union, with which Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are linked in the European Economic Area (EEA) common market, and with which Switzerland has its own bilateral arrangements.


And EFTA is the EU's second biggest trading partner in services, after the United States.


Another 5 per cent of EFTA trade is with the 20 countries to which it is linked through 16 free-trade agreements.


Bryn said two more agreements with Colombia and Peru were likely be completed by this summer.


Negotiations are also running with the Gulf Cooperation Council, comprising Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, and could be largely completed this summer, and talks have now been launched with Algeria, he said. Bryn said he hoped talks on a free-trade deal with Thailand, put on hold by both sides amid the Southeast Asian country's recent political turmoil, would shortly resume.


EFTA will also conduct a feasibility study on a trade deal with Russia this year, although the deal itself would have to wait until Russia joins the WTO, something Russian officials say they would like to agree this year.


Negotiations with Ukraine can be launched as soon as its WTO accession, now approved, is ratified, and EFTA is also looking at talks with Indonesia, Malaysia, Albania and Serbia, he said.


"For many of these, the key thing is finding time, finding a slot in the calendar," he said. (Reuters)