African countries hold second CFTA Negotiating Forum

2 June 2016

Representatives from the African Union’s (AU) member states held the second session of the Continental Free Trade Area Negotiating Forum (CFTA-NF), continuing their work aimed at laying the foundation for the upcoming substantive negotiations. The meeting, which concluded on 20 May in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, addressed various issues related to the preparatory work and guiding documents for the CFTA negotiations.

These include the rules of procedure for the CFTA negotiating institutions, the guiding principles and the modalities for the CFTA negotiations, the work plan for the CFTA-NF, as well as the terms of reference for the technical working groups.

According to a source close to the negotiations, the meeting approved two of those documents, namely the rules of procedure for the CFTA negotiating institutions and the guiding principles for the CFTA negotiations.

Earlier in May, a group of CFTA experts – led by the United Nations Economic Commission on Africa (UNECA) in close collaboration with the AU – also met in Nairobi, Kenya, in order to work on the drafting of the CFTA framework agreement, an interim pact that would establish the principles, scope and details of what has been agreed in the context of the CFTA negotiations. Despite substantial efforts however, the group was not able to finalise the draft CFTA agreement.

In its current form, the document prepared by the experts consists of a draft CFTA agreement contained in five distinct protocols, which cover goods, investment, competition, services and industry.

At the end of the experts meeting, it was still unclear whether the AU member states had given mandate to the UNECA and the AU to undertake such a drafting exercise.

Still aiming for 2017

If successfully concluded, the CFTA would constitute the largest free trade area in the world, covering 54 member states. It would establish a single market for goods and services in Africa of over a billion people with a gross domestic product in excess of US$3 trillion.

The CFTA is expected to build on the achievements in terms of regional integration of African regional economic communities (RECs), as well as on the Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA), another African mega-FTA concluded last year between members of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the East African Community (EAC).

In January 2012, the Assembly of the Heads of State and Government of the AU adopted, during its 18th session, the decision to put in place this Pan-African CFTA as part of a broader Action plan for boosting intra-Africa trade. The indicative date of 2017 was set as a deadline for concluding the CFTA negotiations.

This indicative deadline was again reaffirmed last year, in June, when African leaders launched the CFTA negotiations at the 25th Summit of the AU, just a week after the launch of the TFTA.

At that time, nonetheless, African Union Commissioner for trade and industry, Fatima Acyl Haram, recognised that the AU was fully aware of the potential challenges that may accompany the negotiation of such an ambitious agreement.

While some observers have expressed scepticism about the ability of AU member states to conclude negotiations by 2017, sources close to the negotiations indicated after the second session of the CFTA-NF that African countries and institutions are still working under this deadline.

As of now, however, it is unclear when substantial negotiations will begin, since the first two meetings of the CFTA-NF focused mainly on preparatory issues.

The AU stands ready to provide support

According to a press release issued on AU’s website, Nadir Merah, head of the trade division, indicated during the last CFTA-NF meeting that the organisation’s department of trade and industry stands ready to provide technical and administrative support to the negotiators through a recently established CFTA support unit.

The unit will support member states by providing technical and negotiating assistance to countries that may need it during the course of the CFTA negotiating process. It will also provide secretarial and technical support to the various meetings at all levels of the CFTA negotiations machinery.

This CFTA support unit has however not reached its full-fledged capacity yet. When fully operational, it is expected to have 14 highly qualified dedicated experts, among which six are expected to start assuming their duties by this month.

ICTSD reporting.

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