Opinionista Jan Hofmeyr 19 July 2016

Brexit and its implications for African integration

While Britian’s shock decision to leave the European Union (EU) certainly poses the single biggest challenge to date for the world’s most ambitious regional integration project, it would be premature to commence with the obituaries for similar experiments across the globe.

Each of these experiments has been – and continues to be – shaped by nation-states with distinct histories and divergent interests in particular regions with their own complex configurations of hard and soft power. Together their realities, past and present, combine to determine the ultimate ends of political and/or economic integration, as well as their criteria for success.

The EU now will have to deal with a number of tough existential questions, but they may be very different from the ones that other regions need to pose about their own attempts at integration. Yet, at the same time it would be short-sighted to dismiss the past two months’ events as completely inconsequential to other integration projects.

Since the outcome of the referendum became known, most speculation in Africa has centred on its implications for trade and aid. But while a thorough understanding of the longer-term economic consequences of the Brexit will be critical for sustaining their commercial ties with both the EU and the UK, national governments, as well as continental institutions such as the African Union (AU) and the Pan-African Parliament (PAP), who stand at the forefront of continental integration initiatives, will also have to consider the broader political significance that these events hold for their endeavours.

Given the far more advanced stage of the European integration project, it is unsurprising that few have thus far ventured into making such comparisons, but in failing to do so Africa may risk overlooking the most basic forces that shook the foundations of what until recently appeared to be an impenetrable supranational political project: political alienation, stemming from the fear of a loss of sovereignty.

Increasingly, ordinary Europeans are blaming the EU for the growing difficulty with which they make ends meet, for unemployment, and for migration, which they perceive to be a major threat to both their cultural and economic security. That these sentiments existed should not have come as a surprise to the technocrats from Brussels, who have witnessed a growth in support for nationalist right-wing parties across the EU over the past decade. What must have struck them like a bombshell was its force and how vulnerable they were rendered by it.

The question of sovereignty stands central to Agenda 2063, the AU’s blueprint for continental integration that it adopted in 2013. It 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, the AU acknowledges, will be a long-term endeavour that requires a major paradigm shift in the minds of Africans. According to the Agenda 2063 Framework Document, a core component of this 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 cede their sovereignty to entities outside of the nation-state?

Recently published results of the Afrobarometer survey, the continent’s most authoritative public opinion survey on governance matters, may provide some guidance in this regard. In the latest round of the survey, which was conducted in 36 countries across Africa in 2014/2015, one of the most instructive findings on continental integration has been that only 38% of respondents felt that the AU makes a significant contribution in assisting their respective countries, while a further 21% described their contribution as “a little bit”.

One in eight respondents (12%) felt that it does not make any contribution, while almost a third of all respondents (30%) indicated that they know too little about the AU to comment on its contribution.

The results vary from region to region, but particularly in North and East Africa, levels of ignorance about the AU, and the perceived absence of its role in the respective countries, were most evident.

Viewed together, the findings suggest that the AU’s sphere of influence remains, as could be expected from a relatively young supranational institution, limited in comparison to that of their respective governments. Although not prompted, we can therefore safely assume that at this stage few Africans are likely to view its impact as a threat to their sovereignty.

But what happens in the hypothetical situation where governments have to cede their sovereignty – as is being encouraged by Agenda 2063 – and abide by regional protocols and sanctions on issues related to governance? To gauge this, the survey prompted respondents to indicate which of two statements is closer to their own view:

  • The first posits that all governments in a particular region have a duty to guarantee free elections and prevent human rights abuses in the rest of a region, and that a lack of compliance can be met with political pressure, economic sanctions, and even military force.
  • The second proposes 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.

Only 34% of respondents indicated their agreement with the first statement, which at a very minimal level argues that national sovereignty cannot under all circumstances be viewed as absolute, or conversely, that under certain circumstances external actors can intervene in the national affairs of a country. Close to 60% indicated their agreement with the latter, which excludes the participation or influence of external actors in their internal affairs. This sentiment is overwhelming and cuts across regions. In only one country, Burkina Faso, more than half of respondents indicated their preference for the former statement.

Interestingly, when responses across the continent are disaggregated by education categories, almost two-thirds (63%) of those falling within the highest educational category indicated their preference for complete sovereignty, compared to 51% of those with no formal education.

This ties in with another finding, which shows that those with no formal education (62%) were also more likely to approve of free cross-border trade and movement than the most educated respondents (53%). National sovereignty in Africa still matters, in spite of the impressions that the more amplified rhetoric on pan-African unity in continental institutions may betray.

While the pursuit of Agenda 2063 may therefore still be at a conceptual stage, it would serve the AU and the continent’s 54 sovereign states well to consider how they will take ordinary citizens with them on this journey towards a stronger continental union. Whatever its approach, it will serve the AU well to sequence its agenda in ways that incorporate, rather than react to, the expectations and fears that Africans may have of closer continental integration. DM

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.