Lessons for the African Union from Brexit


Prof. John Harbeson

The British vote to exit the European Union may turn out to be the defining event of the first decades of the 21st Century. This may be true for many reasons – some of the more important implications may become visible only over the course of the several years it will take to complete the negotiations on withdrawal. My hunch is that no matter how the negotiations turn out, the fall-out from the vote may have fundamentally important implications for an already profoundly changing global economic and political order, including for African countries’ positions in that evolving order.

The immediately evident possible fallout from the British decision could include the breakup of the United Kingdom itself, for another vote on Scotland’s independence is likely ‒ Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain within the EU. Northern Ireland, equally determined to remain in the EU, seems to have fewer options. Independence seems unrealistic and the heavily Roman Catholic Republic of Ireland is an implausible destination for the predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland.

The EU itself will be at risk of further weakening. Its Brexit negotiators will be caught between the evident benefits of retaining some ties to the relatively robust British economy and not giving encouragement to others of the remaining twenty-seven countries to renegotiate the terms of their association with the EU, or even seek their own independence.

Also, Britain’s departure changes the balance of power in the EU because it will tend to make Germany more dominant than it may want to be, given its history with its neighbours in from mid 19th Century to mid 20th Century. Moreover, the EU has already stumbled badly on the issues surrounding mass immigration from the Middle East and Africa. More than anything else, it was unhappiness with free movement across borders that drove the Brexit vote. Immigration debates will be the link between the Brexit vote and forthcoming elections in the US and elsewhere.

The longer term and wider global implications of the Brexit vote have so far received less attention, but my guess is Britain’s decision may add momentum to possibly tectonic changes in the global economic and political order already well under way. In a nutshell, the Brexit vote may represent amplified weakening of liberal values and institutions first carefully constructed after World War II, nurtured during the succeeding tumultuous decades, blossomed most in the 1990s following the end of the Cold War, and whose prevalence was profoundly challenged in the 21st Century since the events of September 11, 2001.

Those liberal values and institutions have broadly favoured free, fair, and inclusive trade relations, democratic practices and processes at international as well as within-country levels, the pursuit of just and equitable as well as rapid socioeconomic development, and commitment to the rule of law. Ends in themselves, they have been advanced as antidotes to ethnic, racial and sectarian violence within and between states, and foundations for lasting peace and advancement of the human condition.

Consider briefly the historical record of efforts to realise these core values. The Bretton Woods agreements creating the World Bank and the International Monetary fund sought to institutionalise free trade grounded in the reality of United States post-World War Two economic hegemony, and the belief that acting in its own best interests, the US also advanced the interests of all states. Notwithstanding the Cold War, the system accommodated the dismantling of the European empires and widening debate over how to give meaning to these values in liberated, diverse cultures of a post-colonial world.

The post-Cold War decade of the 1990s appears to have been the high tide of liberal internationalism to date, exposing at the same time also fundamental flaws in its value arsenal, not yet repaired, that have contributed subsequently to placing liberal values in some significant jeopardy. A pervasive hunger for democratic liberation from autocratic rulers in Africa and elsewhere was relatively unchallenged in the international arena, joining continued pursuit of free and inclusive trade norms, softened by fresh emphases on relief of poverty and environmental distress.

The Brexit vote dramatises one so far unrecognised reason why liberal values are endangered globally in the present century: the fact that democracy has been allowed to atrophy within the EU because the elected European parliament has failed to hold the governing Commission to account for severe regulatory over-reach, deeply resented even by those continuing to support European Union membership.

The lesson is clear for the African Union and the continent’s array of regional economic communities:  these communities must be just as democratically accountable to their respective member countries’ citizens as their national governments.

Writer is Professor of Political Science Emeritus, and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies



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