Are lessons from European integration relevant for Africa?


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Having recently moved from South Africa to Belgium, I can’t but wonder whether six decades of European integration are relevant for Africa.  Or are we comparing apples and mangoes?

The idea of an economically and politically united Africa has been gaining momentum since the first Pan-African Congress of 1900. Roughly one century later, the African Union (AU) was launched at the 2002 summit in Durban, South Africa.

The European Union (EU) started small with the European Coal and Steel Community (1951 Treaty of Paris) with only six countries.  Today, it includes a common market, a common currency and increasingly a coordinated foreign and security policy.

Before you ask, yes, I have looked at a world map lately and I am also aware of history!

The AU counts 53 members (twice the EU’s current number), and with 1 billion people also twice the EU’s population. Furthermore, Europe in the 1950s and the African continent today could hardly be more different in their starting positions - geographically, economically, in terms of infrastructure and human capital stocks, the state of public institutions, or the checks and balances on leaders.

Nevertheless, there are three lessons about how Europe has approached integration that are worth looking at in Africa.

1. Bringing the people along – Ok, here European politicians had an easier start. Two World Wars made it abundantly clear to the vast majority of European citizens that Europe needed to integrate and deliberately create mutual dependencies in order to sustain the peace. The Cold War helped integration further; nothing unites better than a common enemy. But the ongoing heated debate in some countries around Euro introduction, the Swiss referenda on EU membership, the Greek bailout and the recently failed creation of an EU Constitution show that public support should never be taken for granted.

While Africa had no shortage of conflict either, the cumulative effect does not seem to have created a strong enough political rationale for African citizens to feel the need to integrate. African leaders will need to use the strong economic rationale to create broad public understanding and political desire for regional integration. This will take time. Hence it has become urgent.

2. Political will and leadership, not just institutions matter – As the EU experience shows, regional integration (RI) is a deeply political process, because when it gets interesting (open markets, common trade policy, common currency, joined external policies) it entails giving up national sovereignty. Instead, in the development discourse in Africa, RI appears more as a technical development challenge of how to integrate roads, power grids, trading areas, currencies, often without seeking a political consensus first.

A related issue is that RI doesn’t happen just because institutions (such as the RECs) say so. If you had wanted to talk to Europe about the introduction of a common currency in the 1980s you probably wouldn’t have gone to Brussels first, but to Bonn and Paris.

RI happens because countries and elected officials show leadership, often against fierce domestic political resistance. In the EU, this leadership was provided early on by the BENELUX countries, three smallish countries with a big vision (take note Burkina, Burundi and Lesotho!), and later in particular France and Germany as the locomotives for integration (take note Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa!).

Having gone through two World Wars, Kohl and Mitterrand and their predecessors personally understood that the European project was ultimately about peace and prosperity, and they were willing to fight for it (politically, this time around).

Institutions like the European Commission were created as the result of that strong political will of member states. Yet in Africa we seem to have an obsession with creating more institutions - underfunded, often lacking legitimacy and with overlapping membership - and then trying to build their capacity without the necessary leadership of the member states.

3. The need to be strategically selective and to sequence – In a fast forward from 1951 until today the EU went from the coal and steel sectors to agriculture, to a common market, to the Euro and now gradually towards a common foreign/security policy under the ‘Lisbon Treaty’.

In Africa we have hundreds of simultaneous initiatives from air traffic control to bio diversity to transport to malaria and education, all without a doubt important in their own right, but taken together hardly strategic. This lack of strategic sequencing is exacerbated by much lower aggregate capacity than Europe had back in the 1950s or 1960s, which would argue for even greater selectivity and slower sequencing than the EU chose in its own path.

Can African leaders focus on say just energy and transport and integrate them successfully over the next decade? And will donor partners accept if their pet initiative doesn’t make the top two, for the sake of the greater good?


Dirk Reinermann

Director of the IDA Resource Mobilization and IBRD Corporate Finance, Development Finance

September 28, 2010

I read your blog post with a great deal of interest, having been an ardent African integrationist since my high school years, your exceptional argument neglected critical information that should really be included in any integration comparison debate regarding Africa.
- Chief among them is Nation States within each African country. The artificial boundaries hastily put together by the colonialist during the scramble for Africa, the divide and rule techniques employed, and the sheer social underdevelopment, will perhaps take generations, to overcome
- The education aspect: I am going to be blunt here!! African population, political and business leaders must first understand the importance of one thing: education… education… education… and so they must invest heavily on it
- Western Hypocrisy… this too should be dealt with

Dirk R
October 02, 2010

I watched that match live in the stadium in Soweto and we were all Africans that night. Soccer created a very powerful, unifying identify, which was truly wonderful to see. First the Cup united South Africa across all societal groups, and then it united Africa to stand behind the Ghanaian team as one.

But 'revealed preferences' show that this identity has not yet led to large scale pressure on African nation states to surrender national sovereignty to a supranational body. But maybe herein lies a lesson? Find the popular trigger that unites Africa and use it for regional integration. It does not matter whether this trigger is war fatigue or soccer, as long as it works.

October 04, 2010

"I watched that match live in the stadium in Soweto and we were all Africans that night. Soccer created a very powerful, unifying identify, which was truly wonderful to see. First the Cup united South Africa across all societal groups, and then it united Africa to stand behind the Ghanaian team as one."

Yes, indeed, this was a very powerful and heart warming night. I hope to see more events like this taking place in the very near future.


Dirk R
October 02, 2010

That is very true, Jacqueline. And if it wasn't for the size limit of such blogs I would have added some more flavor of this 'zigzag' course of the EU. However, looking at it with hindsight, it is accurate to say, I believe, that the integration process was overall very determined, selective and gradual and led to both deepening and widening, even if it wasn't always linear. As I say in the blog, the recent debates around the Greek bailout, the EU "constitution" and the introduction of the Euro in some members states show that progress can never be taken for granted and every centimeter of integration has to be fought for by leaders with a vision. At the moment we seem to have run into a bit of a "vision roadblock", but I remain an optimist when it comes to European and African integration.

Dirk R
October 02, 2010

You are right to point out that the starting positions of Africa today and Europe in the 1950s are vastly different, and you add more dimensions than I could list in my blog to make that case.

However, Africa also has it easier today in some ways: world markets are wide open for their products, and demand is high (unless we find ourselves in a crisis like now), which was not the case for European products in the late 1940s. There is also a lot of aid available, especially for those countries that reform and invest in education. Lastly, most borders, while artificial, have existed for decades now and most are accepted internationally and domestically. This was not the case in my own country (Germany), which had a border running through it until 1990 and where still a small but vocal minority feels that some lands further East are German. But this has never stopped German Federal Governments to push for European Integration.

Starting positions will always be different. But the main point I try to make in my blog is that it is up to leaders to develop the vision for regional integration and demonstrate the leadership to get it done, even if it is unpopular at times. That in my view is the strongest lesson of the EU.

September 28, 2010

I enjoyed this post. I work with a client REC and frequently remind myself that, as an inter-governmental organization - with all the implications that has for decision making and accountability – they are better compared to the EU than to a sovereign government.

I wonder about Point 1 ‘Bringing the People Along’ though. During the World Cup, watching Ghana’s last match from a bar in Tanzania, I was struck by the very strength of African identity and solidarity compared to other continents.

Does continent-wide strategic integration have a greater chance of success than multi-speed integration at the sub-continental level?

Sam Gardner
September 28, 2010

Good points, and there are indeed good lessons from the step by step approach of Europe.

An element that gets often lost is the attention to harmonising administrative procedures.

Lofty principles and declarations have often less impact on integration than a simplified, common form to simplify border crossing for cargo.

Jacqueline Irving
September 28, 2010


I read your recent blog post with interest, having focused on European economic integration during my post-grad studies in the late 1980s and shifted regional focus in my work (mainly) to Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s. You raise three good and interesting points.

I think it's important to keep in mind, though, that the European integration project may hold lessons for Africa and other regions, but these aren't always positive ones. Progress over its history was often elusive, or at least delayed, with a growing membership having differing national agendas. The monetary union initiative, going back to the European Monetary System and beyond (EMU was first included as an official aim of the EEC’s integration project in the late 1960s)—and, most recently, as highlighted by the Greek debt crisis--has had its share of pitfalls and setbacks. And the (then) EEC was troubled throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s by "Eurosclerosis." The EU continues to face ongoing "deepening vs. widening" tensions, as it has added to both its agenda and country members over the years. So the European integration project has also had its share of difficulties in being "strategically selective" and sequencing its priorities, going back to its ECSC beginnings.



October 20, 2010

Thoughtful provocation. Since the 60thies, Africa is home of plenty of regional organisations some influential and with clear vision about their role in pushing development of the continent, others unfortunately, out of steam. EU and Africa have also Institutions in common. One thing Africa Leaders, elites, media and society should consider: the European integration process has enhanced at great speed space for freedom of trade, entrepreneurship, and people movement. It brought most of EU citizens' great opportunities for individual and collective achievements, in good and bad times alike. This was a critical incentive for countries that, following the founding six, freely joined the then Community now Union. Countries as different as UK and Slovakia joined, so diversity, when well managed, should not be an obstacle per se. A bold African integration process may help in freeing such critical energy too for the well being of its people.

Aerie C
October 21, 2010

Dirk, first off, I would like to compliment you on the post. For all of its faults, the EU has been quite successful in bringing peace and prosperity to the majority of Europe. It is difficult to tell what the EU will look like in the years to come.

I do question whether or not the majority of the states that make up the African Union are ready to take a step further into integration. We never get to start from scratch; we are always building upon previous foundations. While the humble beginnings of the EU emerged from the ashes of WWII in the environment of the Cold War, sub-Saharan Africa has neither the same precedent nor a similar environment. Aside from wars of independence, the majority of sub-Saharan African conflicts have been civil wars.

Without a strong and unified preexisting national identity and/or government, I fear irredentism would cause a fractalization of the state (something like the weakening of a pre-Franco Spanish state resulting in Basque, Catalan, Galician, etc.. secession). Colonizers demarcated African countries; Africans countries, in most instances, didn't set their own borders. Perhaps an AU would allow these borders to be redefined without war, but this could be rather idealistic.

Time will tell how these Unions will be able to rebound from shocks.