Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Regional Integration the World Over

Courtesy of Joan Masters.

New kids on the bloc
Written by Gregory Roumeliotis
Newropeans Magazine
Wednesday, 31 August 2005

For decades the EU has been the largest and most integrated economic group in the history of international cooperation. Now new regional trade blocs like the African Union (AU) and the South American Community of Nations (CSN) try to adopt the European model of integration and replicate its success.

It has been a busy summer for the European Commission. Its President Jose Manuel Barroso has been preparing seminars, conventions and communication campaigns designed to boost public confidence in the EU´s institutions following the French and Dutch rejections of the European Constitution. But while internal disaffection and skepticism about the EU may be on the rise, the appeal of the European model of integration in other continents has never been greater.

The most enthusiastic admirers of the EU can be found in the fledgling African Union. Many of its founding fathers, like Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, may lack the democratic credentials of Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, but are certainly not short of ambition. The AU encompasses all 53 African nations and was formed in 2002 out of the remnants of the Organisation of African Unity, a 39-year-old organisation that played a crucial role in the African condemnation of apartheid but did little to promote democracy, human rights and economic prosperity in the continent. Unlike its predecessor, the AU is determined to be more than a talking shop. Its Council, Parliament and Commission resemble their European counterparts and there are plans for a Court of Justice, a central bank and a free trade area with a common currency all by 2023. However, the Parliament only has a consultative role and most of the power within the organisation lies with the Assembly, the equivalent of the EU’s intergovernmental conference where heads of state meet at least one a year.

Since African nations are already members there is no incentive to meet higher standards of democracy, transparency and economic responsibility in the way the EU motivates neighbouring countries to clean up their act so they can meet the Copenhagen criteria and join the club. Nevertheless, the AU has a carrot in its New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), a programme offering foreign aid and investment to countries that demonstrate respect for human rights and fiscal accountability. More encouragingly, the AU has demonstrated a willingness to engage in conflict resolution and condemn human rights violations. It refused to legitimize a military coup in Togo, has helped broker a peace deal in Côte d'Ivoire and currently has peacekeepers in Darfur, albeit not enough. Yet its silence on Zimbabwe and the recent election irregularities in Ethiopia cast a shadow on the AU as a force for peace and democracy in Africa.

Bolivar lives

Across the Atlantic in South America, an even more optimistic blueprint for integration was revealed last December in Peru. It envisages the merger of two existing economic blocs, Mercosur and the Andean Community, into the South American Community of Nations, joined by Chile, Surinam and Guyana. Nonetheless, old economic disputes persist – some South American leaders didn’t even attend the declaration - and despite claims that the CSN will one day surpass European integration and even become a country, there has so far been little progress in abolishing internal trade tariffs. Argentina’s former president Eduardo Duhalde has conceded that, as opposed to the EU, political union will have to precede economic integration.

Beyond the Pacific on the other hand, political integration is considered taboo. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded in 1967 with the clear understanding among its five founding nations that the nature of their cooperation would be strictly financial. This is safeguarded by the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and its non-interference clause that allows the organisation to accommodate democracies like Indonesia and the Philippines along with autocracies such as Laos and Vietnam. Now 10-member strong, ASEAN is trying to create an EU-style common market in the face of stiff competition from India and China, but the unwillingness to give up national sovereignty so as to establish a level-playing field makes such efforts domestically unpopular and politically difficult. Moreover, ASEAN was spared a year of embarrassment when the military junta in Myanmar, under pressure from the EU and the USA, announced in July it would forego its chairmanship of the organization in 2006.

If you don’t succeed at first…

There is no guarantee that all these long-term strategies for integration will work for these blocs. The track record of their precursors is poor and any of the new initiatives could end up like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), an organisation that for 25 years failed to achieve its objective of a common market. Still the prospect of successful integration continues to drive many leaders in spite of the missteps and adversities. Freedom of movement for goods and people in Africa could put an end to ethnic tensions caused by the colonially imposed boundaries of nation-states. Economic integration could boost South American economies and give them more leverage in world trade negotiations. Accession mechanisms that focus on human rights and political transparency could help democratise Asian countries and increase investment. These are just few of the benefits followers of the European model say integration could bring to other continents. As Europe’s disheartened elites wonder how things went wrong in the EU, foreign leaders are trying to figure out how things went right - and how to do the same.

Gregory Roumeliotis
Glasgow (United Kingdom)

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