SACU – All’s not fair in proposed Customs Union reforms

SACU mapThe Southern African Customs Union (SACU) is an almost invisible organisation. Yet it has arguably had a profound impact on South Africa’s economic and even political relations with its much smaller neighbours – and on those four small countries themselves. But there are also deep differences among its five members – the others are Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland (BLNS) – about what the essential nature of SACU should be.

This weekend, SACU ministers will be meeting in South Africa for a retreat to try once again to set a new strategic direction, a roadmap into the future, for this critical body.

The leaders of the member countries will meet in a summit, also in South Africa, sometime before 15 July – when South Africa’s term as SACU chairs ends – to adopt or reject this roadmap. The aim of the changes in the SACU treaty would be to turn it ‘from an arrangement of convenience held together by a redistributive revenue formula to a development integration instrument,’ South African Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies said during a press briefing in Kasane, Botswana, last Friday.

Davies said there were still ‘lots of differences’ among SACU members, which they had been unable to resolve despite years of negotiations.

SACU was founded in 1910 – the year South Africa was also created. Since then, the common external tariff it created has functioned as an instrument for the much larger South Africa to support the much smaller BLNS economically, by re-distributing to them a disproportionate share the customs tariffs collected at the external borders. Or, depending on your point of view, to relegate them to being passive markets for South African products.

The new African National Congress government, which came to power in 1994, ‘democratised’ relations with the BLNS by creating a Council of Ministers to make decisions by consensus in a new post-apartheid SACU treaty, which came into force in 2004. But the basic deal remained the same, as Davies implicitly acknowledged in last Friday’s briefing when he said: ‘we have historically just set the tariffs on behalf of SACU … and … in return for that, provided compensation … in the revenue-sharing formula.’

Also read – SACU Retreat announced by President Zuma

The re-distributive revenue-sharing formula has been hugely important for the government revenues of the BLNS. In South Africa’s 2015-2016 budget year, for example, the total revenue pool was expected to be about R84 billion, of which the BLNS would receive R46 billion – according to Xolelwa Mlumbi-Peter, Acting Deputy Director-General in South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry, in a briefing to the parliamentary portfolio committee on trade and industry last year. She added that South Africa contributes about 98% of the total pool, while BLNS receive about 55% of the proceeds.

That meant South Africa was losing – or re-distributing – about R44.3 billion in that budget year, as de facto ‘direct budgetary support’ to the BLNS, to use the language of Western development aid.

‘This is seen as “compensation” for BLNS’s lack of policy discretion to determine tariffs, and for the price-raising effects of being subjected to tariffs that primarily protect SA industry,’ Mlumbi-Peter said.

A glaring example of that dynamic is South Africa’s maintenance of import tariffs on foreign automobiles to protect its own automobile industry. That, of course, makes automobiles more expensive in the BLNS countries.

And should South Africa choose instead to grant rebates on some tariffs – for example to encourage imports of inputs into South African industrial production – this would also impact negatively on the BLNS by reducing their tariff revenues, Mlumbi-Peter suggested.

In 2011, South African President Jacob Zuma chaired a SACU summit to review these inherent disparities. It agreed on a five-point plan to change SACU’s fundamentals, including a review of the revenue-sharing formula; prioritising work on regional cross-border industrial development, including creating value chains and regional infrastructure; promoting trade facilitation measures at borders; developing SACU institutions; and strengthening cooperation in external trade negotiations.

Nonetheless, as Davies said in Kasane, ‘we haven’t really been able to reach an understanding of what does development integration in SACU mean.’ And so Zuma had just completed a tour of visits to his counterparts in the BLNS countries to discuss these plans, and the upcoming retreat and summit. Davies said Zuma had found the BLNS leaders ‘flexible’ – though regional officials suggest otherwise.

Does South Africa, as the only really industrialised nation in SACU, not have inherent and irreconcilable differences with the rest of the body? Davies acknowledges that South Africa – with about 85% of the combined population, and about 90% of the combined GDP – also has most of the industries that demand tariff protection.

Nevertheless, he added, ‘We are all committed on paper to seeing tariffs as tools of industrial development… But there is also an obvious temptation for a number of other countries to see the revenue implications as more important.’ And, he did not add, there is also a growing feeling in South Africa that it could do with that R44 billion a year or thereabouts, which it gives to the BLNS every year.

The coincidence of the signing, on 10 June, of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the European Union (EU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the attempt to revive SACU, underscored an ironic analogy of South Africa’s and the EU’s predicaments.

Also read – Historic Economic Partnership Agreement between EU and SADC 

With the EPA, the EU hopes to shift its relations with the SADC nations away from the traditional donor-recipient type of arrangement, to one of more equal and normal trade and industrial partners. That, essentially, is what South Africa is also hoping to achieve with its proposed reforms of SACU.

But it’s hard to see how South Africa is going to convince the BLNS to give up R44 billion a year of hard cash in hand, in exchange for the rather dubious future benefits of being absorbed into South Africa’s industrial development chains.

Source: Peter Fabricius – ISS Consultant.

Membership to several blocs hurts trade in EAC

Dr Richard Sezibera meets His Highness the Agha Khan at the EAC Headquarters in Arusha. (Sunday Times Rwanda)

Dr Richard Sezibera meets His Highness the Agha Khan at the EAC Headquarters in Arusha. (Sunday Times Rwanda)

Overlapping membership in several trade areas is impeding “free circulation of goods” within the East African Community-members states, a regional integration and trade expert has said.

Alfred Ombudo K’Ombudo, the Coordinator of the EAC Common Market Scorecard team, has told The News Times that belonging to other trade blocs outside the EAC makes members reluctant to remove internal borders to allow goods to move more freely.

According to K’Ombudo, a Common External Tariff (CET) is critical to ensure free circulation of goods through the application of equal customs duties. The EAC Customs Union protocol has a three-band structure of 0 per cent duty on raw materials, 10 per cent on intermediate goods and 25 per cent on for finished goods.

However, of the five partner states, Tanzania is a member of the SADC and subscribes to a different structure while Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, are members of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa). On the other hand, Burundi belongs to the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).

This, according to the expert is “perforation of the bloc’s CET,” drilling a hole in the regions tariff structure as member- states trade with other countries below the agreed tariffs.

“This makes EAC countries less willing to remove internal borders because they are not sure whether goods may have come from other blocs. This is a serious structural problem that is difficult to solve because the customs union legally recognises other blocs that members belong to,” K’Ombudo noted.

Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda’s participation in Comesa and Tanzania’s membership to SADC is recognised by the EAC, but no exception is granted to Burundi for participating in the ECCAS.

Article 37 of the bloc’s Customs Union Protocol recognises other free trade obligations of partner states but it requires them to formulate a mechanism to guide relationships between the protocol and other free trade arrangements.

EAC Secretary General, Richard Sezibera, told The New Times during the launch of the Scorecard in Arusha, that there have been efforts to address the issue of overlapping membership.

“They [EAC leaders] have done two things to [try] addressing it: One is to harmonize the CET of the EAC and that of COMESA. This makes it easier for COMESA states to reduce the level of perforation,” he explained.

He added that in 2008, the heads of state decided to negotiate a free trade area between the EAC, COMESA and SADC as another way of fixing the problem.

Dr Catherine Masinde, the Head of Investment Climate, East and southern Africa at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), said: “If we were not to perforate the EAC would end up with a bigger volume of trade figures”.

She noted that since the launch of the EAC Customs Union, in 2005, the region has witnessed strong growth in intra-regional trade, rising from $1.6 billion to $3.8 billion between 2006 and 2010. Intra-EAC trade to total EAC trade grew from 7.5 per cent in 2005 to 11.5 per cent in 2011.

“This is significant growth but, I am told that this is, in fact, a drop in the ocean. That it is far from the potential of the market. I was given a figure, that $22.7 billion [in inter-regional trade] was actually lost to other regional blocs, from this region, [between 2005 and 2012] because of non-compliance with the common market protocol.” The Scorecard, Masinde hopes, will solve various EAC compliance issues as well as energize reforms to spur the bloc’s development. Source: The Sunday Times (Rwanda)

SACU’s Choice – ‘Common policy or irrelevance’

imagesCA31PQJGThe Minister of Trade and Industry, Dr Rob Davies briefed the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry regarding the progress on the implementation of the five-point plan in Cape Town. This is a work programme which was approved by the 2nd Southern Africa Customs Union (SACU) Summit convened by President Zuma in 2011 premised on the following pillars;

  1. Work programme on cross-border industrial development;
  2. Trade facilitation;
  3. Development of SACU institutions;
  4. Unified engagement in trade negotiations and
  5. The review of the revenue sharing arrangement.

The five-point plan emerged from realization by SACU Member States of a need to move SACU beyond an arrangement held together only by the common external tariffs and the revenue sharing arrangement to an integration project that promotes real economy development in the region.

Minister Davies noted that progress on the implementation of pillars of the five- point plan is uneven. SACU has registered good progress on trade facilitation and there is greater unity of purpose in negotiations with third parties (Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), SACU-India and Tripartite Free Trade Area).

However, there is limited progress on the review of the revenue sharing arrangement and hence lack of adequate financial support for the implementation of cross-border industrial and infrastructure development projects. The SACU revenue pool is raised by South Africa from customs and excise duties. Mr Davies told MPs that in 2013-14 the total disbursement from the revenue pool would be about R70bn of which the BLNS countries would receive about R48bn. There is also lack of progress on the development of SACU institutions as a result of divergences in policy perspectives and priorities of Member States.

Enabling provisions provide for the establishment of National Bodies and a SACU Tariff Board. The SACU Tariff Board will make recommendations to Council on tariffs and trade remedies. Davies added that, until these institutions are established, functions are delegated to the International Trade Administration Commission (ITAC) in SA.

The minister warned that the lack of agreed policies would hinder effective decision-making on regional integration and industrialisation, which had made little progress since the 2011 summit convened by President Jacob Zuma. South Africa believes SACU needs to move “firmly towards a deeper development and integration”.

Minister Davies said SACU risked becoming “increasingly irrelevant” as an institution if it did not develop beyond operating a common external tariff, and a “highly redistributive” revenue-sharing arrangement. The lack of progress in developing new SACU institutions was primarily due to policy and priority differences among members. “Against this background South Africa needs to reassess how best to advance development and integration in SACU.”

Among the disagreements on tariff setting between South Africa and its neighbours highlighted by Mr Davies, was that South Africa saw tariffs as a tool of industrial policy while they regarded them as a means of raising revenue. For example, the other Sacu members wanted to include the revenue “lost” on import tariff rebates offered by South Africa into the revenue pool.

The pool provides these countries with a major source of their national budget. Rebates were seen as revenue foregone for which additional compensation should be sought. South Africa, on the other hand, argues that the rebates (for example on automotive imports) are part of its total tariff package and serve to attract investment and boost imports and therefore, contribute to expanding the revenue pool, not diminishing it.

He emphasised the development of a common approach on trade and industrial policy as the prerequisite for establishing effective SACU institutions in future.

He highlighted that a discussion on appropriate decision-making procedures on sensitive trade and industry matters that takes into account SACU-wide impacts is required. Source: The Department of Trade & Industry, and BD Live.