Comesa leaders want joint free trade area fast-tracked

Comesa leaders want negotiations on a larger free trade area (FTA) joining three Regional Economic Communities (RECs) concluded by June.
Traders at Rwanda-DR Congo border. Leaders want FTA fast-tracked. File
Traders at Rwanda-DR Congo border. Leaders want FTA fast-tracked. File

Comesa leaders want negotiations on a larger free trade area (FTA) joining three Regional Economic Communities (RECs) concluded by June.

This was announced last week in the DR Congo capital, Kinshasa.

A two-day 17th Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) Summit in Kinshasa, which ended Thursday, urged Member States to ensure that negotiations on the tripartite free trade area are completed by June 2014.

The RECs are the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), East African Community (EAC), and Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).

The Kinshasa summit’s communiqué indicates that Comesa leaders appreciate the progress in negotiations and also called upon Member States to finalize outstanding issues particularly on tariff offers and rules of origin.

According to the summit’s final communiqué, the summit urged Comesa Member States to ensure that the Tripartite FTA is an improvement over the existing FTAs in the tripartite region.

The summit directed its Secretariat to appropriately prioritise work on the infrastructure and industrial development pillars and movement of business persons.

Once in place, a single FTA is expected to boost regional integration through improved investment flows and enhanced competition. The tripartite FTA will transform the wider region into one of the most lucrative African regions.

The proposed FTA, stretching from Cape Town to Cairo, will create an integrated market with a combined population of almost 600 million people and a total GDP of about US$1 trillion. The tripartite scheme is within the framework of establishing an African Economic Community as the continent aims to establish a continent-wide free trade area by 2017.

Negotiations for the tripartite FTA were planned to be conducted in phases – preparatory phase, phase one, and phase two.

The preparatory phase, from December 2011 to November 2012 covered the exchange of all relevant information including tariffs as well as trade data and measures. The roadmap was such that all negotiations are completed within 36 months.

The last stage of negotiations, phase two that is now underway, deals with trade in services and trade related issues including intellectual property rights.

If all goes according to the plan, the launch of the tripartite FTA is set for 2016.

The Comesa-EAC-SADC FTA will build on the FTAs that are already in place. Among other things, it is expected to help resolve the long-standing problem of overlapping membership, which has presented barriers for the three communities in their pursuit of integration.

Last week, a regional integration and trade expert told The New Times that overlapping membership in several trade areas is impeding ‘free circulation of goods’ within the EAC.

The expert, Alfred Ombudo K’Ombudo who is the Coordinator of the EAC Common Market Scorecard team, said that belonging to other trade blocs outside the EAC makes the bloc’s members reluctant to remove internal borders to allow goods to move more freely.

During a 2008 summit of the three groupings in Kampala, leaders including President Paul Kagame decided that the three RECs should “immediately start working towards a merger into a single REC with the objective of fast tracking the attainment of the African Economic Community”.

At the time, no time-line was set within which this decision would be implemented but the Heads of State and Government directed the Tripartite Task Force of the groupings’ Secretariats to develop a road map for implementation of the merger.

The Comesa summit in Kinshasa appreciated that intra-Comesa trade has increased six times to $19.3 billion by the end of 2012 since the establishment of the Free Trade Area (FTA) in 2000 when trade stood at $3.1 billion.

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