The European Union (EU) is due to publish its long-awaited ‘Communication on Regional Integration in ACP countries’ soon.
The document represents a welcome update of the EU’s strategy of supporting regional integration worldwide, last laid out extensively in 1995. In the intervening years, regional integration has leapt to the forefront of the global agenda, as increasing globalisation has led states to conclude that many of their most pressing problems – issues such as climate change, pandemics and armed conflict – can only be dealt with at the supra-state level.
The EU has acknowledged this trend, and is today without doubt the world’s leading proponent of regional integration. It actively backs dozens of regional integration schemes, both close-to-home (e.g., the much-touted new ‘Union for the Mediterranean’) and further afield (it has collaborated with the Association of South East Asian Nations since 1980), lending technical, financial and moral support.
The EU has impeccable credentials in regional integration, given its own largely successful coalescence into a single entity over the last 50 years. Cognizant of its unique comparative advantages, eager to strengthen its relations with far-flung parts of the globe and sincerely believing that regional integration contributes to the establishment of a more peaceful, prosperous and just world system, the EU has found the correct framework for handling many of its international relations.
While the policy largely makes sense, however, its application has not always been well-thought out. The case of East Africa is revelatory: there the EU is undertaking a range of regional integration projects, from helping to finance the East African Community’s (EAC) soon-to-be-completed headquarters in Arusha, Tanzania to providing technical assistance with the development of an EAC common market. In July, the EU also co-organised a high-level conference in Dar es Salaam on ‘Accelerating Regional Integration in Eastern and Southern Africa’. The conference brought together dozens of African ministers and development partners, and while there were interesting debates at times, the event was plagued by the EU’s mistaken belief that Eastern Africa, parts of Southern Africa, and the island nations of the Indian Ocean somehow all constitute a single ‘region’.
The organisers should instead have realised that no less than five separate African regional organisations were represented at the conference (COMESA, EAC, IGAD, COI, and SADC); the difficulty in organizing a conference at such a broad level is that the states present looked to get very different and occasionally incompatible benefits from regional integration.
The EU’s problem of targeting the wrong region is not limited to Africa. In South America, for example, the EU has a disturbing pattern of vacillating between supporting limited regional organisations, such as Mercosur and the Andean Community, and wider integration schemes, be they at the continental level or in even broader configurations (i.e., including Central America and the Caribbean). The latter, while having the benefit of being inclusive, rarely allow for the political intensity that can move integration along. The EU thus undermines one of its most promising and distinctive foreign policies by failing to focus on the most appropriate regional levels, substituting breadth for depth.
To be fair to Brussels, finding the appropriate level for each part of the world can occasionally be a very difficult and subjective task, as academics can attest to. However, the solution is not to lump dozens of countries together into the broadest bureaucratic categories possible, such as ‘Eastern and Southern Africa’.
Hopefully the EU’s new strategy document will maintain and strengthen the policy of promoting regional integration while demonstrating some new thinking on how best to apply it.
Nicolas de Zamaróczy is pursuing a Ph.D. in International Relations at the University of Southern California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Author : Letters to the EurActiv editor