Since the beginning of the 1990's, the EFTA States - Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland - have jointly negotiated free trade agreements (FTAs) with a number of countries outside the European Union. Initially, EFTA mainly used FTAs as a means to avoid discrimination vis-à-vis the European Union, which endeavoured to establish a Pan-European free trade area by means of the "Europe Agreements". At first, priority was given to agreements with Central and Eastern European countries. EFTA primarily focused on agreements with Mediterranean countries, with the objective of participating in the creation of the greater Euro-Mediterranean free trade area scheduled for completion in 2010, in the framework of the EU's Barcelona process. The EFTA States are thus making a contribution to the promotion of economic cooperation in the Euro-Mediterranean region.
Facing the multiplication of regional and, more often, supra-regional FTAs, the EFTA States have extended their free trade policy towards potential overseas partners. The EFTA States were among the first European countries to establish free trade relations with Asian partners. Today, EFTA benefits from a network of 22 FTAs and a number of negotiations are currently ongoing or under preparation.
In addition, the EFTA States have signed Declarations on Cooperation with various third countries. These declarations provide for the creation of a joint committee which meets on a regular basis. Such Declarations on Cooperation may eventually lead up to the negotiation of a FTA.
Collective negotiations on FTAs in the framework of EFTA require member States to adopt common negotiating positions vis-à-vis their prospective partners. When preparing for negotiations, the EFTA States must first coordinate their national interests. For each set of negotiations with a third country, a representative of one member State takes on the role of EFTA spokesperson, although other member States still play an active role in the negotiation process. Once negotiations have been completed, the agreement is signed by all Parties and ratified in accordance with their respective constitutional procedures. In the field of basic agricultural products, each EFTA State negotiates a separate bilateral agricultural agreement with the third country concerned. This is due to the fact that the EFTA States do not have a common agricultural policy.
The EFTA Secretariat assists the EFTA States during negotiations and with the implementation of EFTA FTAs and Declarations on Cooperation.