I like the European Union. I enjoyed studying abroad, I appreciate not having to go to a Forex when I travel from Berlin to Rome, I am able to buy affordable duty-free yummy French Camembert in Germany and I like that I have the opportunity to apply for jobs anywhere around the EU without thinking about permits, visas or the like.
Of course, I know that nationalism has seen a revival in Europe.
I have watched the news and seen Front National growing strong in France or Islamophobic ‘Patriots’ marching in the streets of Dresden every Monday night. Yet even among those die-hard critics of the EU there is consensus that at least the economic integration process (let’s not include the single currency here) of Europe has been beneficial to all Member States and to the large majority of their citizens (Greeks might disagree).
To me this has always been a hard fact and even one that can be generalized to other areas of the world: regional economic integration will pay-off.
In fact, it is one of the few projects for economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa on which almost all politicians, donors, businesses, civil society actors of different camps can agree easily. African Regional Economic Communities (RECs) are praised by the African Union for healing the scars of arbitrary colonialist borders, supporting local business development, fostering cultural exchange, supporting intra-African trade and other wonders. The latest African Development Report by the African Development Bank presents the arguments well and gives a solid overview about the status quo.
As a convinced European I thought it would be interesting to see how this wonderful idea is put into practice and I managed to get an internship position with the German development cooperation (GIZ) at their support program for the East African Community (EAC) which is based in Arusha, Tanzania. The EAC is commonly described to be the most progressive and ambitious REC on the continent and has reached quite some milestones so far. Its five Partner States Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have rolled out a Customs Union, continuously expand the scope of their own Common Market and have even agreed to enter a Monetary Union with the planned introduction of a common East African Shilling in 2024.
Studies tell you that the EAC is a role model for similar organizations. When I attend regional meetings I have the feeling that true progress is being made. Representatives from all partner states work together well and have an East African approach to many issues the region faces.
It’s the image I also get in my private life. Recently I went to “Sauti za Buzara” in Zanzibar, the most prominent music festival in East Africa. I saw great acts from Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania and danced with Ugandans and Burundians alike. Other weekends I take the bus across the border to enjoy big city life in Nairobi or some Kenyan friends come over to pay us a visit. All I want to say is that – to me – East African regionalism is real and both my private as well as my professional life shows me how it can work – It looks like my optimistic expectations have actually been met.
Alas, I am living in a bubble and it burst about two weeks ago. It is not the first time I got a reality check since I work at the EAC, but this time it was more brutal than before. Tanzania – our beloved host country – just gave regional integration efforts the bird. Again, it did not come as a total surprise. Tanzania has always been a bit reluctant about opening up towards its East African partners.
The so-called “Coalition of the willing” made up of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda had already realized that and created what we termed in the EU as a “two-speed union”. While the Coalition has arranged for citizens to travel quite freely across these three countries, scrapped work permit fees and made progress on common infrastructure development, Tanzania took things a bit more slowly and only hesitantly implements previous EAC policies.
Yet, two weeks ago the Tanzanian government came up with two decisions that were not only not helping to further integration, but actually represented a fundamental step backwards: Firstly, the Civil Aviation Authority ordered the region’s biggest airline, Kenya Airways, to decrease its flights to Tanzania from 42 to 14 per week. Secondly, the Tanzanian parliament voted for a highly restrictive new immigration law that makes it even harder to get a work permit as a foreigner than it is already. The first decision has been taken back for now and the second still needs to be confirmed by President Kikwete, but they both sent a strong signal: integration is definitely not top priority.
It is especially frustrating for us at the GIZ because two of our focus areas of cooperation are Trade in Services and Free Movement of Workers. On top of that, Tanzania is the second biggest economy and the largest country in terms of population in the EAC – an actor you want to have fully on board.
But why does such a major player dither like that?
You might think that it would make economic sense to go for a bit more protectionism. After all there is some inequality between EAC countries and some Tanzanian companies are likely to lose out by having to compete with their more efficient Kenyan neighbors. Moreover, especially Chinese actors here are often criticized for bringing in workers for tasks that many Tanzanians would be able to do and with 65% youth unemployment jobs are very much needed.
Yet, on a second look, the economic argument is hardly valid. Overall, Tanzania has grown strongly since economic integration began in 1999: its GDP per capita more than doubled over the years and regional trade has taken a similar route.
Looking specifically at the two recent decisions, Tanzania would suffer dearly. The country’s important tourism industry complained strongly to President Kikwete when the ban was announced, as many of their customers are flown in by Kenya Airways and Dar businessmen rely on air transport to the business hub Nairobi. Tanzania’s own national carrier went bankrupt some time ago, local Precision Air does not have sufficient capacity to step in and the budget carrier FastJet is not allowed to operate in Kenya yet (some say that retaliation for this was the reason for the Kenya Airways ban in the first place). Concerning the other bill, Tanzanian businesses rely on bringing in foreign experts to close a great skills gap caused by a broken and underfunded education system. For many technical and higher managerial jobs that the country lacks enough skilled candidates to fill all positions. Simply restricting companies from recruiting outside of the country will not magically create a highly-capable workforce.
It seems like there is little ground to draw back from regionalism for economic reasons. Could we be facing the return of the spectre that haunted and finally helped to destroy the last attempt at an East African Community in 1977?