CAPE TOWN // It is a curious coincidence that, with the UK vote on membership of the European Union next month, the future of the bloc is uncertain when some in Africa lament the implementation of similar regional trade alignments at home.
“We really have not become integrated as an African people into a real union,” said the Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe a couple of years ago, referring to the African Union (AU).
“And this is the worry, which my brother has, and the worry I have; the worry perhaps others also have. That we are not yet at that stage which was foretold by our fathers when they created this organisation,” .
The former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was also a vocal proponent of the idea of a unified continent. “I shall continue to insist that our sovereign countries work to achieve the United States of Africa,” he told the AU in 2009, in an inauguration address on becoming chairman of the 53-nation body, which he founded in 2001. Only Morocco is not a member.
The stated aims of the AU include: to establish the necessary conditions which enable the continent to play its rightful role in the global economy and in international negotiations; to promote sustainable development at the economic, social and cultural levels as well as the integration of African economies; and to coordinate and harmonise the policies between the existing and future regional economic communities for the gradual attainment of the objectives of the Union.
Although Gaddafi’s proposal was met with an awkward silence and dismissed as an eccentric intellectual detour by most, the idea has persisted. Poorer and weaker nations especially have liked the idea of the potential strength afforded through being part of larger commercial union.
Britain has long been a supporter of African trade development and within the EU is among the most vocal in standing up for and encouraging more integrated trade development between the 28-nation bloc and African states.
But some argue the union is bad for Africa. Sam Akaki, the Uganda-born director of the Democratic Institutions for Poverty Reduction in Africa, a UK-based development organisation, wrote in a letter to The Guardian recently: “African-British voters should vote to leave the EU in order to enable the mother continent to negotiate more equitable trading agreements with the UK.
“The EU imposes stiff tariffs on African agricultural imports, thus making it impossible for Africa to trade itself out of poverty.”
Others point out that if the UK does leave the EU, trade agreements between African states and the UK may have to be renegotiated from scratch. Even under ordinary circumstances the process is lengthy and so may prove a significant barrier to renegotiating more favourable agreements.
“This would take years as the UK would first have to draft then discuss the new policies and then finally, implement them,” says Ryan Bax, an industry analyst at Frost and Sullivan in Cape Town.
“The UK is South Africa’s second-largest vehicle export market and remains strategic to the OEMs [original equipment manufacturer] involved. Changing these flows would add considerable cost to the manufacturers involved,” he says.
Of all the possible changes a Brexit could usher in, none would be as welcome, both in Africa and the UK, as that of a major trading partner no longer being bound to the EU’s reviled Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The system of protections and subsidies for EU crops has been blamed for flooding Africa with cheap produce while making access to the bloc difficult for African exporters.
The UK Conservative MP James Cleverly noted in a recent speech that Germany makes more money from selling coffee than the whole of Africa, as a result of CAP, due to tariffs on imported beans.
But, as with other issues where Britain has been a moderating voice on behalf of Africa, the UK’s leverage on trade in Europe would be greatly diminished in an exit.
“A British departure from the EU would remove an influential actor within the EU in support of more open markets,” says Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, the chief executive of the South African Institute of International Affairs. “The UK has taken a less protectionist view of trade agreements than other EU members.”
In the meantime Africa as a whole may have to come to terms that continental unity as a whole is an unachievable goal, at least within the current generation.
Ever since the British seized the Cape to prevent it falling into Napoleon’s hands, the UK has had a long and complicated relationship with Africa; this is unlikely to change should it decide to quit the EU.
The British went on to pioneer the colonialist drive that saw almost the entire continent under European domination by the time the Second World War broke out. It is a legacy that has left wounds yet to heal but the UK has done much over the past decades to atone for the past.
Britain was a prime mover for the UN Millennium Development Goals that set poverty reduction targets in 2000, and also the driver for peace-keeping efforts in Somalia.
“Britain’s interest in African affairs have preceded the EU and are driven both by its colonial history and links, as well as by its own global position,” says Ms Sidiropoulos.
“The UK is not the global colonial superpower of old, but it is still more than a regional power, with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and a nuclear power.”
The UK’s department for international development (DfID), for example, is a global, prominent player in development cooperation. DfID is now at the centre of the UK’s Africa policy, most clearly in the ongoing efforts to keep the UK to the UN target spend of 0.7 per cent of GDP on official development aid.
So important has DfID become that it has overtaken the foreign office (FO) in its African footprint. While the FO has cut its offices to about 35 offices out of Africa’s 54 countries, Dfid has a presence in nearly all of them.
The UK is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council, where it frequently raises African issues. Being part of the EU gives it heft on this body that it might otherwise not have.
Within the EU itself their could also be a lessening of interest in African affairs.
Should the UK depart from the EU, it is possible that a voice for Africa’s interests within the union will be lost and with it, a measure of the country’s international standing.
“The UK’s departure from the EU would likely change the dynamic within,” Ms Sidiropoulos says. Many of the new members of the EU from central Europe have not historically identified Africa as an important dimension of their foreign policy, largely because they have no colonial or other historical relationship to build on.
Ms Sidiropoulos believes it is not only African issues on the line in the event of a vote for Brexit on June 23.
“A British exit would in the medium term affect its position and influence in the world at large, not just in Africa.”
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