swissinfo | May 9, 2007
Efta continues to extend its influence
While world trade talks remain deadlocked, the European Free Trade Association (Efta), of which Switzerland is a member, continues to extend its network of accords.
New negotiations are extremely far advanced with Canada and India, the organisation announced on Wednesday at the presentation of its 2006 annual report in Geneva.
"We have agreements with 50 different countries, including 25 from the European Union, which makes Efta the most extensive free trade zone in the world," declared Efta Secretary-General Kåre Bryn.
Bryn explained that Efta had no intention of weakening the World Trade Organization (WTO).
"We are not in competition with the WTO, but we have to admit that it is easier to finalise an agreement with one country, or a group of countries, than with 150 governments," said the former Norwegian ambassador.
"The slow negotiating process at the WTO forces all countries to sign more and more bilateral accords," said Bryn.
He hoped that Efta agreements, which often go much further than current WTO negotiations by including, for example, provisions for protecting intellectual property rights, could one day be integrated into the WTO system.
While agriculture continues to block the Doha Round of global trade talks which began in 2001, Efta has signed 15 free trade agreements that have already entered into force.
Efta is particularly pleased with the revival of outstanding free trade negotiations with Egypt - delayed for years before its conclusion in 2006 - and Canada, which was resumed in 2006 after six years.
"For this year in terms of negotiations, the finalisation of long ongoing negotiations with Canada is a major objective," Martin Zbinden, head of the Free Trade Agreements and Efta division at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco), told swissinfo.
"An important step last year for Switzerland was the entry into force of a comprehensive free trade agreement with Korea. At the beginning of this year we also signed an agreement with Egypt after a long negotiating period and of course we are very satisfied with that," said Zbinden.
The increasing economic importance of Asia is also reflected in Efta priorities. In December Efta ministers and India’s minister for commerce and industry launched a joint feasibility study that may lead to negotiations on a comprehensive economic agreement.
"I am optimistic that the negotiations will start by the end of the year," declared Bryn.
Elsewhere in Asia, Efta has worked on a joint study with Indonesia that assesses the possibility for opening trade negotiations.
Preliminary discussions have also been opened with the Gulf Cooperation Council (comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), Colombia and Peru.
According to Bryn, the signing of agreements with Russia and Ukraine remain a "high priority", but Efta is waiting for both countries to join the WTO.
However, contacts with Japan have failed, as Tokyo wishes to conclude separate accords with individual countries.
China, meanwhile, has started separate discussions with Iceland and is ready to do the same with Norway, but has excluded the possibility of bilateral talks with Switzerland. According to Bryn, the issue of intellectual property rights could explain Chinese hesitation.
Owing to the issue of agriculture, Efta does not plan to open negotiations with the United States on free trade in the near future, said Bryn.
swissinfo with agencies
Free trade is an international trade system which is based on reducing the barriers to the free circulation of goods and services.
Switzerland has followed this policy for a while. It either signs accords individually or through Efta, which also includes Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland.
Apart from the Egypt deal, 15 free trade accords have been signed between Efta and other countries. This includes Turkey, Israel, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon and Tunisia in the Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area.
Recent Swiss negotiations with the US on free trade have however stalled.