Approaches and modalities for the Continental FTA

JB Cronjé, tralac Researcher, proposes a way forward for the CFTA negotiations

THE DECLARATION on the launch of the negotiations for the establishment of the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) provides that the negotiations must aim at ‘integrating Africa’s markets in line with the objectives and principles enunciated in the Abuja Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community’. The Abuja Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community (Abuja Treaty), adopted in 1991 and entered into force in 1994, aims to establish a Free Trade Area followed by a Customs Union, Common Market and eventually also a Monetary Union in six incremental stages. It is important to note this process commenced before the establishment of the World Trade Organization or the age of phenomenal advances in digital technology that have resulted in the fragmentation of production and trade globally. Since then, the step-by-step integration process envisaged in the Abuja Treaty has been overtaken by these and many other developments, making its legal framework unfit for the challenges facing trade and regional integration in the 21st century.

When the Member States adopted the Abuja Treaty, their objective was to achieve this vision through the integration processes of existing and future Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and the conclusion of agreements aimed at coordinating and harmonising policies, measures, programmes and activities between and among them. In order to enhance this REC-centred integration approach, a Protocol was signed between the African Union and the various RECs to formalise and consolidate closer cooperation. The Protocol established an institutional framework to govern the relations between the African Union and the RECs and provided a coordination mechanism for regional and continental efforts for the realisation of the objectives of Abuja Treaty and the Constitutive Act of the African Union. It also gave the African Union authority to take action against a REC whose policies, measures, programmes etcetera are incompatible with the objectives of the Abuja Treaty or whose activities lag behind the time limits set out in the Abuja Treaty. For whatever reason(s), this approach has not achieved the objectives of the Abuja Treaty.

Due to a lack of rationalised, coordinated and harmonised inter-regional integration the original vision for the establishment of an African Economic Community got lost in the specific and individual approaches adopted in line with REC imperatives. As a result, the RECs are at different stages and levels of integration. A flutter of hope arose with the launch of negotiations for the establishment of the COMESA-EAC-SADC Tripartite Free Trade Area negotiations but it has not delivered on its objective of establishing a single integrated Free Trade Area comprising the Members of three recognised regional building blocks of the African Union. What were originally intended to be building blocks for the creation of an integrated African market have now turned into stumbling blocks.

New initiatives adopted by the Member States of the African Union such as the Action Plan on Boosting Intra-Africa Trade (BIAT) and Framework for fast-tracking of a Continental Free Trade Area, the Action Plan for Accelerated Industrial Development of Africa (AIDA), the Programme of Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) and the Minimum Integration Programme (MIP) provide the basis for a different approach to integration. They facilitate a new pathway for REC convergence without restricting the pace of progress of the RECs that are ahead of the others. A more workable approach that identifies key priorities to address the most pressing challenges to Africa’s integration and development is imperative in order to avoid getting stuck on sensitive market access negotiations. A practical sector-by-sector or issue-by-issue approach in which fundamental principles and minimum common points are outlined in an early agreement could provide the basis for continuous adaption and improvement in each identified area. Such agreements should be anchored in an overarching legal framework that sets out the new pathway for Africa’s integration and in line with the vision provided of Agenda 2063. This could offer a more sensible approach for the establishment of the CFTA.