Southern Africa: Tripartite Free Trade Area to Become a Reality

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Once operational, this tripartite FTA will become a new benchmark for deeper regional and continental integration in Africa.

There is a clear recognition that COMESA-EAC-SADC is founded on a strong and clear agenda, despite the challenges that the three regional communities may face.

According to a roadmap adopted in June 2011, negotiations for a Tripartite FTA are being conducted in three different phases - preparatory phase, phase one and phase two.

To date, the Tripartite Trade Negotiation Forum (TTNF) has completed the preparatory phase which involved the exchange of relevant information, including applied national tariffs and trade data and measures.

It was aimed at ensuring the adoption of the terms of reference and rules of procedure for the establishment of the TTNF. This phase began in December 2011 and lasted about 12 months.

The tripartite negotiations are now concluding phase one which will cover core FTA issues of tariff liberalisation, rules of origin, customs procedures and simplification of customs documentation, transit procedures, non-tariff barriers, trade remedies and other technical barriers to trade and dispute resolution.

Facilitating movement of business persons within the region is being negotiated in parallel with the first phase.

Phase two, the last stage of the negotiations, is expected to start soon and will cover trade in services and trade-related issues such as intellectual property rights, competition policy and trade development and competitiveness.

According to the roadmap, all negotiations should be completed within 36 months. Thereafter, COMESA-EAC-SADC are expected launch a single FTA by 2016, building on the FTAs that are already in place.

It will also resolve the long-standing conundrum of overlapping membership, which has presented barriers for the three communities in their quest towards integration.

Technically, a country cannot belong to more than one customs union, yet the three communities have either already established or are working towards creating their unions.

The ultimate launch of the enlarged FTA will result in the three sub-regions coalescing into a single FTA with the goal of establishing a single Customs Union in the near future.

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