The European Union's success in achieving security and prosperity through economic integration has become an example for the rest of the world, yet Arabs and Africans are finding it tough to forge their own regional blocs.
Yemen recently called for the 22-member Arab League to be reinvented as an EU-style Arab Union to give the region more clout on the world stage. Meanwhile, the League's popular secretary-general, Amr Moussa, has placed reform firmly on the agenda of the ageing 59-year-old body's upcoming summit later this month (29-30 March).
With all the talk about discord and the EU punching below its weight internationally, some Europeans may be baffled that any region would want to follow their model. But a growing number of Arabs and Africans see Europe's unifying experience as an object lesson in liberal pragmatism. Many Arabs wonder why it is that, after six decades of trying, a league of countries speaking the same language – with such notable exceptions as the Comoros Islands and Djibouti – has not yet blossomed into a full-bodied union despite early promise.
Before the guns had fallen silent in Europe's Second World War, seven states launched the Arab League in 1945 to build a post-colonial era of prosperity and independence. This unifying dream reached its zenith in the 1950s and 1960s secular pan-Arab movement. Today, Arabs are left with a third division league creaking under the weight of its own inertia. “To stall on reform is to declare the end of any form of collective Arab system,” Tunisian daily Al Shorouq warned bleakly.
But specialists say the League's take-off problems stem from deeper political and social troubles. “The League's problem is not a technical one, it's a political and societal one,” Pierre Vanrie, a consultant policy analyst at MEDEA, a Brussels-based think tank, told me. “The problem is that there's not enough democracy in the Arab World. All the experiments of the 50s and 60s were not successful because they were initiated by dictators.”
He says that more internal political reform by member states is urgently needed. “If the Arab League is to become more effective, it first requires the Arab World to become more democratic,” Vanrie asserts. In addition, Arab commentators point out that the rivalries for regional leadership between Arab leaders have stifled the masses' desire for unity.
Some Arabs also pin part of the blame on outside forces, such as the West's addiction to Gulf oil, and conflicts. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict – which has spawned millions of stateless refugees – has been an open wound for over half a century. Then there were the horrors of the first and second Gulf Wars. But it is the third Gulf War that, many Arabs fear, has hurt regionalism the most. Iraq may have lost a bloodthirsty dictator, but it has gained, in the minds of Arabs, an oil-thirsty superpower that has resurrected the painful spectre of colonialism. In addition, internal insurgencies in Algeria and Sudan, as well as the human rights record of some regimes in the region, do not inspire optimism.
However, the outlook is not entirely bleak. Countries that were once seen to be at the rearguard of Arab progressiveness are liberalising their political landscape. Vanrie points to the example of Qatar – home to outspoken news channel Al Jazeera – and the United Arab Emirates. “Some years ago, no one expected Morocco to be one of the most democratic countries in the region, so there may be more pleasant surprises to come,” observes Vanrie.
Meanwhile, Africa is forging ahead with its nearly two-year-old EU-inspired African Union. The AU hopes to bring an end to the conflicts, poverty and disease plaguing the continent. Libya, Nigeria and South Africa spearheaded the efforts to overhaul the ineffectual ‘talking shop for dictators' known as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which was created in 1963 to chart an autonomous course for Africa following colonialism.
Out of the rubble of the OAU emerged the African Union at the Durban Summit of 2002. Like the EU, the AU will have a common parliament, a central bank and a court of justice. In so doing, Africans have decided to depend on themselves as much as the outside world. “The political will is there,” Emmanuel Djomatchua-Toko, the AU's permanent representative in Brussels, said on the pages of The European Voice. “Primarily, we need to count on our own resources.”
African leaders have already taken tentative steps to give their fledgling union some teeth with the AU peacekeeping mission in Burundi, and the creation of the African Court on Human and People's Rights in January. Nevertheless, comprehensive and credible conflict resolution and prevention strategies still need to be worked out to address the raging conflicts – from Sudan to Sierra Leone – plaguing the continent.
Last week's AU summit – attended by 39 African leaders – took a major step in this direction by agreeing to create a Peace and Security Council (PSC), inspired by the UN's Security Council. However, some experts are doubtful about its effectiveness. “The PSC is going to fulfil a very important role in theory, but in practice I don't know how much effect it is going to have,” Adala Ochieng, an analyst at the Africa Peace Forum, told AFP.
Others warn that these new instruments will mean little if they become dead letters. “We have to make sure that all member countries genuinely adhere to the… guidelines and vision of the AU in order to transform the continent,” Heneri Dzinotyiwei, a political analyst at the University of Zimbabwe, said on AllAfrica.com.
Although Africa is far poorer than Europe, the obstacles to economic union are similar to those the EU has had to grapple with – an enormous divergence in living standards and economic development. Similarly, monetary union will be difficult under such circumstance. However, francophone West and Central Africa already operate under a single currency.
The AU's New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) aims to improve the continent's economic and political situation radically. Last month, it launched its peer review process. “Nowhere in the world has any head of state ever dared to declare himself prepared to be scrutinised by other heads of state,” argues Senegalese sociologist Marie Angelique Savané, who heads the intitiative.
Some analysts believe that the challenges facing the continent will prove insurmountable and others question whether the AU's outside-in approach can work. Africans have no illusions that war, disease, poverty and dictators stand in the way of prosperity, but they are hopeful.
This article first appeared in the 4-10 March 2004 edition of The European Voice.