Each year, roughly 300 decisions are taken that adjust the European Economic Area agreement, a treaty that extends the EU’s internal market to three non-member states. Co-ordinating the involvement of Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein in this process falls to a Norwegian, Lars Erik Nordgaard, and a 15-member secretariat within the Brussels office of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
A lawyer by training, Nordgaard was working at EFTA as a legal officer when the EEA was negotiated in the early 1990s, the first of three stints with the organisation spread over 20 years. In 1994 he moved to the legal department of the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC, coming back to Europe four years later as a legal adviser on trade at EFTA’s Geneva headquarters.
His next move, in 2003, took him back to Norway as a government trade negotiator, but after four years of that high-pressure work he was ready for a change. In 2007 he returned to Brussels and his present job.
In step with the EU
The process on which Nordgaard works ensures that the EEA agreement evolves in step with the EU. One of the main tasks is to identify European Commission proposals that will affect the internal market. “There is a tendency for larger legislative packages, and not everything that is in one package is internal-market relevant,” he says.
Tracking the whole range of EU policy means that people in EFTA’s relatively modest EEA secretariat have very broad areas of responsibility. “You can compare our work to that of the EU institutions, but everything is much smaller,” Nordgaard says with a smile.
In fact, their role is closest to that of the secretariat of the EU’s Council of Ministers. Liaising with officials from the three countries (collectively referred to as EEA-EFTA), they carry out preparatory and follow-up work for the monthly meetings of the EEA Joint Committee. This brings together EEA-EFTA diplomats with Commission officials, and is the main consultative and decision-making body for the EEA agreement. They do a similar job for the EEA Council, a ministerial body that meets twice a year to provide the agreement with political impetus.
“We are here to assist [EEA-EFTA] member states from what we call the pre-pipeline stage, when the Commission starts thinking about elaborating new legislation, until the day when it is adopted,” Nordgaard explains. It is important that relevant policy initiatives are picked up as early as possible, since the only chance EEA-EFTA states have to influence EU policy is when the Commission is formulating it. They have no formal role in the subsequent decision-making process involving the Council and the European Parliament.
Once a policy affecting the internal market becomes EU law, the EEA Joint Committee takes it up again to consider how the annexes of the EEA agreement need to be modified. Subsequent implementation is down to individual governments, while monitoring is carried out by the EFTA Surveillance Authority.
One of the system’s peculiarities is that the core of the EEA agreement has not changed since it was signed in 1992. “Some of the challenges we face are due to the fact that the EU is changing in ways not foreseen when the EEA was negotiated,” Nordgaard says. “Still, I’m amazed how well it works.”
The latest challenge is to establish a way of working with the Parliament, which has a much greater role under the Lisbon treaty. “We don’t have any formal links with the Parliament, except for our joint committee,” Nordgaard explains, referring to an advisory body that brings together MEPs and EEA-EFTA parliamentarians. “Informally, we can do many things that are not foreseen in the EEA agreement, but we don’t have any right to an input when the [parliamentary] committees are elaborating their positions.”
There are also plans to set up a forum of EEA-EFTA local and regional authorities, whose role in implementing internal-market legislation is currently under- recognised. This will be a natural counterpart for the Committee of the Regions, Nordgaard says. “As we are not part of the EU, we have to create our own parallel structures.”
Ian Mundell is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.
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