This week, the United Nations began training officials from 19 African countries on how to negotiate a trade deal. Their bargaining skills are crucial right now to complete an ambitious project launched in June by the African Union: the creation of a free-trade zone from Cairo to Cape Town in the next two years.
The continent’s dream of economic integration, dating back at least 35 years, is hardly new. But the urgency is. With free-trade pacts in the works between Europe and the United States, and among 12 countries of the Pacific Rim, African nations realize they must boost trade among themselves.
Only 10 to 12 percent of Africa’s trade is across its internal borders, far lower than in other regions and a sure sign of protectionism. And tariffs between African states are far higher than on goods imported from outside the continent.
“African countries are going to have a hard time to compete globally without regional integration,” said Jendayi Frazer, former US assistant secretary of State for African affairs, at a conference last week.
The African Union’s effort is also driven in part by a rising middle class that is digitally connected to the world. AU leaders talk of “the idea of Africa” in a way that European leaders talked about “the idea of Europe” more than 70 years ago while forming an economic union.
The AU knows it must carefully break down trade barriers. Latin America tried and failed to create a trade union in the 1990s while Southeast Asian nations have struggled for decades to lower their trade barriers. For now, the AU is starting with only 26 of its 54 member countries, or those that are already in one of three regional trade blocs (that have been largely unsuccessful). The proposed trade bloc, known as Tripartite Free Trade Area, would extend from Egypt to South Africa and have a population of 632 million with a combined gross domestic product of $1.3 trillion. Eventually, other states would join to form a body called the Continental Free Trade Area.
Yet to succeed, this trade grouping would eventually need to rely on higher standards of political governance. As the European Union learned by the 1990s, trade is linked to such issues as labor standards, political freedoms, and environmental protections. In fact, the EU decided in 1993 to lay down sweeping democratic standards for the entry of any new member, or what is known as the “Copenhagen criteria.”
Trade is not value free, as it requires qualities such as trust and equality. Democracy is the best safeguard for maintaining open trade between countries. As Africa starts a journey toward economic union, it must also prepare to better implement the ideals on democratic governance of its individual states.