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The Institutional Arrangements of the Tripartite Free Trade Area

13 Sep 2019
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The Institutional Arrangements of the Tripartite Free Trade Area

To a large extent, the launch of the COMESA-EAC-SADC Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) in June 2015 ushered in a new institutional approach towards intra-African trade and integration.[1] This is essentially a member-driven framework for cooperation on trade liberalization in goods and services and related areas. No new international organization with legal personality will be created, but there is a plan for aligning the agendas of the participating RECs.

The TFTA has its formal roots in a decision by the Heads of State and Government of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), adopted, at the first Tripartite Summit, in October 2008 in Kampala, Uganda.[2] Their final communiqué states that the Tripartite Summit “resolved 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”.

This did not happen. The re-direction of the TFTA process (from one single regime to a cooperation pact) happened mainly through the adoption and clarification of its Negotiating Principles, adopted before the substantive negotiations started. One of them (about the acquis) became a very important guideline for how the TFTA negotiations were structured. It has been formulated as follows:

Acquis is a French term meaning “that which has been agreed”. In the context of the Tripartite Free Trade Agreement it means that the negotiations should start from the point at which of the COMESA, EAC and SADC trade negotiations have reached. Tariff negotiations and the exchange of tariff concessions would be among Member/Partner States of the Tripartite FTA that have no preferential arrangements in place between them. This will both preserve the acquis and build on it.

The acquis principle has steered the TFTA negotiations towards a particular model. It has also been followed in the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) negotiations. Tariff offers are exchanged only between those Tripartite States that have not concluded FTAs with each other. Those who are in existing FTAs will continue to trade in terms of their existing REC trade regimes.

The TFTA Agreement creates certain Organs for the Implementation of the Tripartite Free Trade Area.[3] The Tripartite Summit (consisting of the Heads of State and/or Governments of Tripartite Member/Partner States) shall give general direction and “impetus” for the Tripartite “arrangement”. The other institutions are: The Tripartite Council of Ministers; the Tripartite Sectoral Ministerial Committee on Trade, Finance, Customs and Economic Matters and Home/lnternal Affairs; and the Tripartite Sectoral Ministerial Committee on Legal Affairs.

The Tripartite Task Force (TTF) of the Secretariats of the three RECs which was established in 2005 building on a COMESA-SADC Task Force that had been established in 2004, shall provide secretariat services to the Tripartite arrangement. The TFTA will not have its own secretariat. The Tripartite Committee of Senior Officials shall be responsible for overseeing and guiding technical work. The Tripartite Committee of Experts shall carry out the technical work and report to the Tripartite Committee of Senior Officials. The idea of political oversight via existing structures has been replicated in the AfCFTA. However, the latter will have its own Secretariat.[4]

What is the relationship between the TFTA and the AfCFTA, which came into force on 30 May 2019 but for which tariffs, rules of origin and services sector commitments, must still be finalized? The Members of the TFTA are also participating in the AfCFTA process. It means there will be overlapping membership consequences.

The clarification of the relationship between the TFTA and AfCFTA lies in Article 19 of the AfCFTA Agreement. It provides that “State Parties that are members of other regional economic communities, regional trading arrangements and custom unions, which have attained among themselves higher levels of regional integration than under this Agreement, shall maintain such higher levels among themselves”.

The TFTA will (once in force) qualify as one of the regional trading arrangements covered by Article 19. It will, in theory, be able to exist alongside the AfCFTA and should promote its aims. Whether the TFTA will live an active life of its own, will depend on the unique trade liberalization profile which its Members will be able to agree. That process has not yet been completed.


[1] Twenty-two of the 27 member states signed the TFTA Agreement, which requires 14 ratifications to enter into force. So far, 4 countries have both signed and ratified the Agreement: Kenya, Egypt, Uganda, and South Africa.

[2] pdf Final Communique of the COMESA-EAC-SADC Tripartite Summit (219 KB)  on their Vision Towards a Single Market and Deepening COMESA-EAC-SADC Integration, 22 October 2008.

[3] Article 29 TFTA Agreement.

[4] See the blog in this Newsletter on the AfCFTA institutions.

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