More work ahead for CFTA negotiators as third round concludes

13 October 2016

African negotiators gathering in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last week continued their discussions towards the establishment of a Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) at the third meeting of the CFTA Negotiating Forum (CFTA-NF), addressing mostly preparatory and procedural questions as during the previous rounds.

The CFTA is an envisaged free trade agreement which, if successfully adopted, would create a single market spanning across all member states of the African Union (AU), with a total population exceeding one billion people and a cumulated growth domestic product of more than US$3 trillion. With 54 member countries, the CFTA would thus constitute the largest free trade area in the world in terms of number of participants.

Building on previous talks as well as on preparatory work by a Continental Task Force on the CFTA, last week’s meeting reportedly agreed on terms of reference for a series of technical working groups covering issues such as technical barriers to trade and non-tariff barriers, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, rules of origin, trade remedies, and customs procedures and trade facilitation.

During the second round of CFTA negotiations, which was held last May, AU member states’ representatives had already approved two important procedural documents, namely the rules of procedure for the CFTA negotiating institutions and the guiding principles for the CFTA negotiations (see Bridges Africa, 2 June 2016).

The third round of the CFTA-NF also considered the draft modalities for the CFTA negotiations on trade in goods and trade in services. The discussions proceeded based on previous work undertaken during the second meeting of the negotiating forum.

On this matter, however, negotiators did not achieve to reach an agreement. Additional work will be necessary during the next CFTA negotiating round, which is expected to be held in late November, in order to finalise the work and adopt the modalities.

Fast-tracking the CFTA

The decision to launch the negotiations towards the establishment of the CFTA was taken in June 2015 at the 25th Summit of the African Union, with the goal of having the free trade area in place by the end of 2017 (see Bridges Africa, 17 June 2015).

Since the first meeting of the negotiating forum held in February 2016, however, various observers have expressed concern that the pace of the talks might not allow for finalising the CFTA by the indicative 2017 deadline.

Speaking at a session during the WTO’s public forum on 29 September, UNCTAD’s Secretary-General Mukisha Kituyi said that although the CFTA is unlikely to materialise by 2017 as foreseen, this target date has been helpful in moving the discussions forward and fostering political engagement.

“I had the privilege to visit 16 African presidents to talk to them about the CFTA and I am satisfied that a large number of the political leadership believes in the future and the need for African integration,” he said.

In order to give an additional push to the talks, African governments decided at the 27th AU Summit in Kigali to set up a high level panel of five eminent persons – one coming from each region – with the goal of fast-tracking the creation of the CFTA.

The decision also “calls on Member States to speak with one voice on all issues related to trade negotiations with third parties.”

ICTSD reporting; “Note on the 3rd Meeting of the CFTA-NF”, TRALAC, 10 October 2016.

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