European Free Trade Association

Acronym: EFTA

Established: 1960

Address: Rue de Varembé, 9-11, 1211 Geneva 20, Switzerland


Stakeholder group: International and regional organisations

EFTA is an intergovernmental organisation composed of four member states: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland.

Established in 1960 by the Stockholm Convention, EFTA promotes free trade and economic integration between its members. Since its founding, relations with the European Economic Community (EEC) (later the European Community (EC)) and the European Union (EU) have been at the heart of EFTA activities. In 1992, three EFTA states (Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein) signed the Agreement on the European Economic Area with the EU, which now makes up the so-called European Economic Area (EEA).

Since the early 1990s, EFTA has been actively engaged in trade relations with third countries in and outside of Europe.

Digital activities

EFTA’s activities in the context of digital issues pertain to electronic communication such as the exchange of information via telecommunications and the internet , audiovisual services, and the information society, including the free movement of information society services as well as data protection.

E-commerce and trade

EFTA’s Working Group on Electronic Communication, Audiovisual Services, and Information Society (ECASIS) deals with legal provisions pertaining to the EU’s digital strategy: A Europe Fit for the Digital Age. As per the EEA Agreement, EFTA states (excluding Switzerland) participate in the EU’s internal market and as such have to apply EU rules on electronic communication, audio-visual services, and the information society. Among other things, these rules include acts on radio spectrum management, roaming, privacy protection in electronic networks, net neutrality, and the deployment of very high capacity networks. Initiatives regarding the information society tackle legal frameworks on the free movement of information society services and apply to a wide range of economic activities that take place online. These include rules on e-commerce, cross-border data flows, the re-use of public sector information, and cybersecurity, as well as electronic identification and signatures.

In its trade relations with partners outside the EU, EFTA facilitates and provides basic rules for trade enabled by electronic means. In 2021, EFTA finalised internal work on a new e-commerce model chapter, which it now employs in the context of negotiations for free trade agreements around the globe. The chapter includes provisions on paperless trade administration, open internet access, online consumer trust, electronic payments and invoicing, and cross-border data transfers, among others.

Future of work

EFTA also tackles the implications of digitalisation on the future of work. In a report and resolution titled Digitalisation and its Impact on Jobs and Skills published by the EEA Consultative Committee, it is highlighted that investments in information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure and new learning methods are important, including apprenticeships and workplace training. Moreover, it underlines the need to examine whether and to what extent workers’ private lives require additional protection in a time of ubiquitous digital mobile communication.

In addition, the EEA Consultative Committee has adopted a resolution and report on the challenges and opportunities of greater use of AI in working life. Therein, the Committee underlined the importance of addressing issues raised by the increased use of AI in work life in a systematic and comprehensive manner in the EEA while following the principles of transparency and human monitoring.

Data governance and liability of intermediaries

In the context of the EEA Agreement, ECASIS works with EU policies on creating a single market for data as well as the conditions for use and access to data for businesses and governments within the EEA. It also engages with the EU to develop a common regulatory framework for artificial intelligence (AI). In the area of online intermediaries, the EEA EFTA states have issued common position papers on the new EU rules for internet platforms: the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act. The EEA EFTA states have advocated for additional safeguards regarding the use of recommender systems and profiling of consumers and micro-targeted advertising, in particular when directed at minors and vulnerable groups. ECASIS also works to implement EU content rules that affect trade in the EU’s internal market, such as with regard to the dissemination of terrorist content and child sexual abuse material online.

Privacy and data protection

In the context of data protection, EFTA’s Expert Group on Data Protection keeps track of EU initiatives in the domain of data protection, which has become particularly relevant in the fast-changing digital environment. The Expert Group contributes to the development of EU policies and legislation in the field of data protection by advising the European Commission, or by being involved in the work of the Commission’s committees, as per the EEA agreement. The EEA agreement covers EU legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the e-Privacy Directive, and Regulation 611/2013 on notifications of data breaches and is, therefore, applicable to the previously mentioned three EFTA states. The Expert Group coordinates with the EC on new EU data adequacy decisions allowing international transfers of personal data with counterparties located outside the EEA.

In addition to the external trade relations of EFTA member states (e.g. size of imports/exports/top traded goods), an interactive Free Trade Map illustrates EFTA’s preferential trade relations with partners worldwide. In June 2022, EFTA also published the first edition of the FTA Monitor, which provides fine-grained data on preference utilisation rates under the EFTA’s existing free trade agreements, including an interactive map. EFTA also provides a web tool containing visual presentations that explains how EU law becomes EEA law.

Future of meetings

Most recently, in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, EFTA held virtual meetings, for instance in the case of the EEA Joint Committee and the interaction with EFTA Advisory Bodies, and negotiations for free trade agreements with partners around the globe. Moving forward, EFTA continues to leverage the benefits of virtual and hybrid meetings and corollary online platforms.

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