Britain may have given up on the EU dream, but Africa still wants integration


In the days after Brexit, markets plunged, the pound went into free fall, a prime minister resigned and the future of the UK and the European Union seemed uncertain.

Beyond the reasons that divided people for this vote, and beyond its economic and political ramifications, it’s clear that there is a growing frustration with inter-governmental integration models. Why then – with the woes of the European Union so visible – is forging ahead with an ambitious plan to accelerate the free movement of Africans and integrate national economies beyond border communities and physical proximity?

There are three reasons why Africans want greater integration between their countries. Firstly, the contexts between Europe and Africa are dramatically different. The EU is the most integrated region globally, and we’ve watched over the last 50 years as Europeans have enjoyed the benefits of integration. A large population of the EU has never known what it is to have to demand visas while travelling in the region, or seek work permits to work elsewhere in Europe than their home countries.

Meanwhile, Africans have a completely different experience to this. Africa is the most fragmented continent worldwide, and its people suffer the cost of non-integration on a daily basis. This fragmentation was imposed on Africa. But now we are working to reverse this process, without violating the principle of sovereignty.

The EU model appeals to African leaders because we’ve seen how centralised decision-making speeds up the pace of development (the AU Commission is currently very decentralised) and that weaker economies don’t hold back stronger states, but if provided with some flexibility, advance at a quicker pace.

Having said that, this year’s took place in Rwanda only three weeks after the Brexit vote. Should pro-African leaders be worried that the UK’s EU vote will influence the integration of the African continent?

I don’t think so. The vision of the African Union is enshrined in ; a continental paradigm shift aimed at working toward “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena”. It’s an ambitious goal but regional projects show integration can work in Africa.

In east Africa regional integration has been instrumental in building cross-border infrastructure, removing barriers to people and goods and cutting costs for the East African Community (EAC) citizen. The EAC for example have enabled the free movement of people, labour, capital and goods. The result of that is a more interconnected African market – an indispensable platform for stronger economic growth and prosperity.

EAC countries along the northern corridor (Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda) have waived fees for work permits and allow the use of IDs or voting cards as travelling documents. A growing number of mutually recognised agreements mean that accountants, architects and engineers can work seamlessly across EAC states.

Connectivity is also an essential aspect within the region, so the EAC is one of the few regional blocs that has scrapped mobile roaming charges. Since then there has been to a in the volume of calls between the countries.

Infrastructure plans for railways, a power plant and an open skies policy for air travel, are also in place. And a with the aim of making travel and doing business easier throughout Africa.

These freedoms of movement and goods are as important for the EAC bloc as they are key pillars for the EU single market. In fact, the EAC has sought to emulate the EU integration model. But going forward the EAC also need to learn from where the EU has failed, by making sure its policies continue to be anchored in everyday citizens’ realities so that they remain politically sustainable.

Brexit has shown that multiple-country solutions have to be based on the needs and aspirations of people, with clear and visible results. The vote to leave was driven by citizen frustrations and the feeling that the EU was a distant bureaucracy in Brussels detached from reality.

As long as we keep these lessons in mind, I believe that Africa is on the right course when it comes to integration. We need to keep a citizen-centered, inclusive and accountable mindset. As leaders, it is also imperative that we involve our citizens in decision-making and implementation, not just when their vote is needed to legitimise or reject a decision.

Two of the greatest precursors for economic growth are infrastructure and human capital. Connecting these elements across Africa is a sure-fire way to make quantum leaps in development. Yes, regional or continental integration can’t cure every ill of society, nor guarantee a particular future, but in Africa we are registering tangible results.

However, if there is one lesson to learn from the bumpy road the EU integration project is going through, it is that for people to choose what best serves their present and future interests, they need to be well informed and fully involved.

Valentine Rugwabiza is the minister of East African Community, Rwanda.

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