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Comesa ministers root for common policy

Business Daily, Nairobi

Comesa Ministers Root for Common Policy

18 May 2008

By Allan Odhiambo

Comesa trade ministers are rooting for a crash programme to harmonise intra-regional policies before the December 2008 deadline of signing a joint Customs Union (CU).

With barely eight months left to the deadline, they said urgent measures were required to ensure a common policy position among member nations in conformity with requirements of a CU.

A CU would is an area where nations have formed a common trade policy and tariff arrangement with the purpose of increasing economic activity and cementing socio-economic and political ties among themselves.

Sensitive products

Trade minister Uhuru Kenyatta, who doubles up as chairman of the council of ministers of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), said they had already identified key requirements on which focus would be made as negotiations for CU intensify.

Among key issues to be fast tracked by the council will be the submission of national tariff schedules by all the 19 members of the market bloc, with the agreed Common External Tariff (CET) and Common Tariff Nomenclature (CTN) and transitional periods towards alignment.

The council will also expedite the completion of the list of sensitive products that members propose to be accorded special tariff treatment under the CET and the adoption of trade policies that embraced flexibility.

"We shall also lay emphasis on the finalisation and adoption of the customs management code and elaboration of appropriate legislation," Mr Kenyatta told an extra ordinary Comesa council of ministers meeting in Nairobi.

Outgoing Comesa secretary-general Erastus Mwencha said most member states had already aligned their tariff structures and schedules as well as lists of sensitive products and expressed optimism that the target CU would be operational within the deadline.

"Many member countries such as the East African nations are already members of a customs union and this only works towards expediting the realisation of a Comesa customs union because most of the issues such as list of sensitive products and tariff lines have already been determined," he told Business Daily on the sidelines of the meeting in Nairobi.

Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka, however, said the lists of sensitive products remained a thorny issue that required caution to protect member nations from short-changing one another.

"Members must prepare for intense negotiation when it comes to discussing the list of sensitive products because different goods and different needs to protect them. This is a major battle," he said when he addressed the meeting.

But apart from the negotiations for a CU, Mr Mwencha warned Comesa member nations to ensure cohesion as the pursued comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with the EU to ensure they are not short changed through divide-and-rule tactics.

"Cohesion will be key in landing the most desirable trade deals with the EU. As a team we shall score big," he said.

He also urged Comesa members to maintain an open-door policy on trade alignments to ensure they don’t lock out genuine and willing trade partners.

"As the grand project of the common market consolidates and matures, the region also needs to engage with other major trading partners like China, India, Brazil, Russia and others in Asia and the Americas who are keen to work with us," he said.

To boost trade within Comesa, the secretary-general said there was need to broaden markets by entering Free Trade Area (FTA) arrangements with regional economic clusters (REC) such as the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

A free trade area encompasses a group of countries that have agreed to eliminate tariffs, quotas and preferences on most (if not all) goods between them.

Mr Mwencha’s calls came just three months after Trade ministers from Comesa passed a resolution setting the stage for the establishment of what would be Africa’s largest common market through the harmonisation of trade regimes within Comesa, SADC and EAC.

"Specifically, the harmonisation will be with respect to the Common External Tariff (CET) and related trade policy areas as well as overlapping membership," a joint communique issued at the end of the third special task force meeting on the Customs Union, in Lusaka, Zambia, read in part.

Just weeks before the resolve by the Comesa ministers a similar proposal had been made by trade technocrats from the EAC at a meeting in Arusha where they called for the formation of a grand Free Trade Area (FTA) comprising of the Comesa, SADC and EAC, saying it would be the best solution to the differences that have arisen among their member states in the recent past.

Their calls largely followed indications that Uganda plans to leave Comesa preferring to belong to a single trading bloc - EAC. Tanzania also left Comesa eight years ago but remains a member of SADC, a situation that has complicated EAC’s drive towards a unified market within Comesa.