EFTA states Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein have signed in Bern a free-trade agreement with Georgia, represented by Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. Brexit was also placed on the agenda at short notice.
Swiss Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann, who holds the rotating Swiss presidency this year, received Kvirikashvili for an official working visit on Monday. Bilateral talks focused on efforts to promote peace in the Caucasus and Switzerland’s cooperation strategy for the South Caucasus region, a longstanding priority in its development cooperation programme.
The particular focus was on economic development and employment, public services and human security, according to a government statement. Schneider-Ammann said Switzerland would continue its involvement in South Caucasus and Georgia beyond the Cooperation Programme 2013-2016.
He also stressed that Switzerland was ready to support Georgia’s efforts for better relations with Russia. As part of its protecting power mandate, Switzerland has represented the interests of Georgia in Moscow and the interests of Russia in Tbilisi since March 2009.
The delegations also discussed the important role of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in trouble spots in the region.
The four EFTA states also opened official free-trade negotiations with Ecuador, which was represented, among others, by Minister for Foreign Trade Juan Carlos Cassinelli.
Further planned talks at the EFTA ministerial conference in Bern concerned ongoing negotiations with India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Schneider-Amman said the agenda of the EFTA meeting had been adapted at short notice – following requests from the EFTA states – to address the recent decision by British voters for Britain to leave the European Union.
He emphasised that this was to discuss possible consequences of Brexit for the free-trade organisation and not whether Britain should be invited to return to the “EFTA family”. Britain was previously a member from 1960 until 1973, when it left to join the EU.
Schneider-Ammann said that while Britain and the EU were discussing modalities for Brexit, no changes would take place in the relationship between EFTA and Britain. Such discussions “would not be appropriate”, he said.
“It would be arrogant for EFTA to offer itself to Britain now,” he said, adding that it was too early to say when such negotiations would be opportune.
He didn’t deny that Britain joining EFTA would fundamentally change the organisation – and that this was an attractive thought – “but for the time being we have a different priority”.
“We must ensure that no legal uncertainty is created,” Schneider-Ammann said. “The current treaty between Britain and EFTA will dissolve on the day Britain leaves the EU. On the day that happens, EFTA must have a new a treaty ready so that market access to one of its most important trade partners can be guaranteed further.”