African free-trade deal on track despite coronavirus
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JOHANNESBURG - The coronavirus pandemic is unlikely to scupper a July 1 target for the first commerce under an African-wide free-trade deal, even if meetings to iron out details are being canceled, according to the zone’s most senior official.
Cross-border travel bans by some governments, as well as restrictions imposed by companies on their employees, have led to conferences being canceled. The Africa CEO Forum, which was scheduled for this week in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, was postponed at short notice due to the virus outbreak.
“I don’t think anybody would have anticipated that the virus would be so disruptive to the entire global economy,” Wamkele Mene, secretary-general of the African Continental Free Trade Area, said by phone. He was due to attend the forum in Abidjan.
The virus “is a big issue to take into consideration,” Mene said. “But, you know, I think we will have to find a way. We’re going to have to find a way.”
Summit in May
The 43-year-old South African has the gargantuan task of getting 54 countries to agree on trade issues. He will move to Ghana, the secretariat or permanent office of the trade zone, at the end of the month to officially start work on April 1. Other aspects of the job will include assisting member states to implement the agreement and establishing a dispute-settlement mechanism.
If it wasn’t for the virus and the ensuing travel restrictions, discussions around trade concessions and rules of origin may have advanced further already and could have been concluded by May. That’s when South Africa is scheduled to host an extraordinary African Union summit to finalize the agreement.
“The rules of origin are 90% ready,” Mene said. Rules on automobiles, sugar and cotton haven’t yet been agreed and are still subject to talks, he said.
Legally, the agreement is already in force, but to make the July 1 deadline for the start of trade in goods and services under the new tariff rules, these details need to be rubber-stamped before the May summit as part of phase one of the process.
“The summit will have to look closely in terms of how we how deal with the disruption,” said Mene.
While the July 1 deadline is important, if countries are unable to trade under the new tariffs by then there’s room for discussion for them to retroactively apply the preferences and reimburse traders, he said.