Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

H2020

EFTA DEVELOPMENT Report Summary

Project ID: 658375
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.3.2.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - EFTA DEVELOPMENT (The ‘other’ Europe: the formation and development of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), 1958–92)

Reporting period: 2016-01-01 to 2017-12-31

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

Brexit, the recent migration crisis, and the 2007-8 financial crash have all served to reignite Europe-wide debate over the types and degree of integration pursued by European states. Such discussions have crystallised attention on historical experiments with alternative models of European integration that contrasts with the deeper political and economic union that is so stark a feature of the European Union (EU). The most notable of these is the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), a free trade area that now comprises Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Although smaller now, EFTA emerged in the late 1950s as the predominant 'other' in European politics, a rival to the early EU whose ranks once included ten current EU members. Today, numerous practitioners harken to the flexible, 'simpler' ways of EFTA cooperation and envision limited reforms to the EU along such lines. Others, meanwhile, go further, with models pursued by countries such as Norway and Switzerland enjoying particular reverence among those sceptical of 'more Europe'.

Such arguments are more than political bluff. Indeed, the emergence in 2010 of the Northern Future Forum comprising Britain and eight Nordic and Baltic countries revealed that peripheral conceptualisations of integration based on a smaller, EFTA-type sub-regional intergovernmental basis does carry mainstream political support. This has become only truer in light of the 2016 Brexit referendum. However, we still know little about how and why EFTA developed, its institutional and policymaking structure, its contribution to the integration process, or the lessons these aspects could carry for the present-day EU.

What scholarship there is suffers three specific drawbacks. First, much of the literature fixates on a few key moments in EFTA's early history and tends to ignore developments in the 1970s and 1980s. Second, historians assume that EFTA was a fairly weak international organization (IO) with very little lasting impact on the world around it. And third, researchers tend to rely on the archives of EFTA's largest member states, ignoring the full range of actors involved in its decision-making process.

As such, this research project set out to:
- study EFTA over a much broader timeframe;
- trace historically EFTA's place in the integration process; and
- assess how all relevant actors - national governments/EFTA officials and institutions/non-state actors like national trade union centres and business lobby groups - shaped the Association's policies and priorities.

With multi-archival empirical research embedded in relevant interdisciplinary theoretical debates, the project adopted a political approach to reveal EFTA to be an increasingly complex organisation. Institutional and non-state actors developed progressively influential agenda-setting and policymaking roles. And, at times, EFTA's reach and influence strayed quite dramatically beyond its modest trade remit into the politico-strategic realm. In specific circumstances this allowed the Association to make a pointed, if understated, contribution to Western European politics, trade and security.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

Aside from general administrative tasks, the opening months of the project consisted of training in relevant interdisciplinary debates drawn variously from sociology, international relations, and law, and a systematic review of pertinent historical literature covering several decades and relevant EFTA countries.

This was followed by the major undertaking of the project: collating and analysing a substantial body of source material from a total of twelve archives in five different European countries. Depositories consulted included EFTA's own papers held in the Association's Geneva headquarters and the Historical Archives of the European Union (HAEU) in Florence. These were complemented by material from the British, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish national archives; personal papers of three former EFTA prime ministers; and four different national trade union centres/business lobbies. A limited number of semi-structured interviews with key representatives of EFTA and national delegations provided more personal insights into latter events not covered in the documentary evidence.

The second year of the project comprised: (1) teaching and related administration; (2) supervisory, management and leadership skill acquisition; (3) convening an international conference; and (4) drafting planned publications. These will include a monograph, a co-edited collection and several peer-reviewed articles in leading international journals.

A project of this type, naturally, resulted in several broad findings of note. A case study of EFTA's role within the Cold War provides an instructive example of these, with ground-breaking and substantial evidence that suggested EFTA's regional impact was greater and that institutional and non-state EFTA actors were occasionally crucial in shaping priorities and strategies. At its inception and amid the worsening Cold War divide, member states sought to expand EFTA's geographic reach (i.e., Finnish associate membership and talk of potential Greek, Spanish and Yugoslav membership) in a bid to undermine the Soviet Union and secure favour from the United States. EFTA's own officials and certain EU-sceptical business groups fostered these activities in the hope of bolstering EFTA's international prestige and boosting economic cooperation. Later, significant financial and technical support for post-revolution Portugal was pivotal to securing democracy. The Secretariat used its oversight of the Portugal Fund to exercise more influence within EFTA, while all member states saw democracy promotion as part of the Association's renewed raison d'être following Britain's decision to leave in 1973. This continued when fostering Western-style democracy via trade and commercial links with the Eastern bloc in the 1980s and 1990s. This had a geo-strategic rationale (preventing a return to communism) but, it was hoped, would also bolster EFTA's standing when negotiating the EEA agreement.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

By reconceptualising EFTA's policymaking structure and its contribution to European politics since its origins in the late 1950s, the project provides historical insights into issues of contemporary importance. First, in an IO dominated by (larger) member states, transnational groupings did form and together with institutional actors they at times proved influential with regard to policymaking and strategy. Second, 'mission creep', often unofficially sanctioned by national governments, did see EFTA move beyond its strict trade liberalisation remit into the grander realm of politics and security. These findings make important empirical contributions to current discussions about the virtues of alternative institutional models of integration and whether we can expect effective intergovernmental organisations while preserving national sovereignty and interests.

Beyond the scientific realm, communication and public/policy engagement through a variety of mediums was a feature of the project spanning the entirety of the project. The Fellow: acted as a Marie Curie Ambassador by engaging with schools and advising Erasmus students; communicated his expertise to a general public and policymakers through various print, online and social media; organised an international conference; consolidated links with decision-makers through a 'diplomacy series'.

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