Is Brexit a cautionary tale for African integration?

24 Jul 2016
Politicians_attend_a_meeting_of_the_african_union

Image: Politicians attend a meeting of the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development on July 16 during the 27th AU Summit. (Cyril Ndegeya/AFP/Getty Images)

Originally posted on Washington Post, Monkey Cage Blog.

Jan Hofmeyr heads the Policy and Analysis Unit of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and is Afrobarometer’s core partner director for Southern Africa. Follow him on Twitter @janihofmeyr.

The final impact of the British people’s dramatic decision to leave the world’s most ambitious regional integration project has yet to unfold. But what does the Brexit mean for other regional integration efforts around the world?

In Africa, national governments as well as continental institutions like the African Union (AU) and the Pan-African Parliament will no doubt grapple with the broader political significance of the U.K. decision to exit the European Union. These two institutions in particular are at the forefront of the continent’s integration initiatives.

True, the European integration project had reached a far more advanced stage, and few direct comparisons were possible between the E.U. and AU. But to many AU watchers, the E.U. had seemed an impenetrable supranational project. Are there any lessons here for the AU and its quest for a fully united Africa?

By most accounts, the “leave” vote was won on the back of a widely held belief among Britons that the U.K. has relinquished its sovereignty to Brussels’ bureaucrats. And, as successive opinion polls have shown, they are not alone in thinking that. Across mainland Europe, ordinary people blame the E.U. for their growing difficulty making ends meet in a context of low growth and rising unemployment. Migration inflows, which they view as a threat to both their cultural and economic security, has for many become a primary target of their ire. This much Brussels knew, because for more than a decade now there has been an uptick in right-wing nationalist parties across Europe. The E.U. was not, however, prepared for its vulnerability to the backlash, and the ramifications for the expansion of the union.

What about sovereignty in Africa?

The question of sovereignty also stands central to Agenda 2063, the AU’s blueprint for continental integration, adopted in 2013. This framework document envisages “a sovereign, independent and self-reliant continent” where “[t]he political unity of Africa will be the culmination of the integration process, including the free movement of people, the establishment of continental institutions, and full economic integration.”

This political unity, it acknowledges, will be a long-term endeavor requiring a major paradigm shift in the minds of Africans. According to the framework document, a core component of this shift must be that “Africa should speak with one voice and cede sovereignty in order to make progress and strengthen collective unity.” Yet, given the recent European experience, how willing are Africans to surrender their sovereignty to entities outside of the nation-state?

The results vary from region to region, but levels of ignorance about the AU, and the perceived absence of its role in the respective countries, were most evident in North and East Africa. These findings suggest that the AU’s sphere of influence remains limited, as could be expected from a relatively young supranational institution. At this stage, few Africans are likely to view the AU’s impact as a threat to their sovereignty, as their respective governments guide political and economic processes.

But what happens in the hypothetical situation where governments may be required to cede some elements of sovereignty — as Agenda 2063 advocates — and abide by regional protocols and sanctions on issues related to governance? To gauge this response, the survey prompted respondents to indicate which of two statements is closer to their own view:

1) An integrationist stance — The first statement argued that all governments in a particular region have a duty to guarantee free elections and prevent human rights abuses in the rest of that region, and that a lack of compliance might be met with political pressure, economic sanctions and even military force.

2) Individual sovereignty — The second statement explicitly rejected regional interference and proposed that each country in the region should respect the independence of others and allow them to make their own decisions about how their country should be governed.

While arguments for pan-African unity to reverse the devastating legacy of colonialism still predominate in the hallways of the AU, the Afrobarometer findings show that the majority of respondents (58 percent) favor the second statement. It is clear that national sovereignty matters to Africans, in spite of the more amplified pro-integration rhetoric from Addis Ababa, where the AU’s bureaucracy resides. The AU to date has largely pursued a policy of non-interference, despite its overall goal of integrating African nations.

There are, however, tentative signs that there is growing momentum for regional integration. At the AU’s Johannesburg summit in 2015, discussions commenced on the creation of an African Continental Free Trade Area by 2017, and in 2016 the continental body announced its intention to pilot an African electronic visa to promote free cross-border movement for all Africans. But details on the progress and implementation of both remain sketchy.

Perhaps, therefore, the Brexit vote comes at an opportune time, as a caution to the AU and the continent’s 54 sovereign states to avoid the price that the E.U. has had to pay for its apparent tone-deafness at an advanced stage of the European integration process. Whatever its approach, it will serve the AU well to sequence the integration agenda in ways that incorporate, rather than react to, the expectations and fears that Africans may have of closer continental integration.