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Free movement of people: can Africa try something different?

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An interesting article published on the Brookings Africa Foresight 2024 titled “The whys and hows of the mobility of Africans in Africa” raises the importance for African States to guarantee greater personal mobility across national borders for their citizens, as a condition for the successful implementation of the AfCFTA, and in particular of the Protocols for trade in services and investment, which explicitly require such mobility. The article notes that in Africa there is a lack of enthusiasm for the African Union’s free movement protocol mainly because of the fear, by the wealthiest countries, that masses of economic immigrants from poorer countries will relocate in their territories, in a time when they are already facing social issues, such as poverty and high unemployment. The risk is that such a large influx of low-income people will turn into a "social bomb" capable of causing social welfare systems in these States to collapse.

Despite the Protocol contains several safeguards to avoid this risk, resistance to its adoption remains high, as witnessed by the low number of its ratifications (four in total, so far), despite the Protocol was signed in the same year when the AfCFTA was signed. On the other hand, better progress has been achieved at sub-regional level in some Regional Economic Communities (RECs) like the East African Community (EAC), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which to different extents have put in place systems that, largely, guarantee visa-free travel for regional citizens.

So, instead of insisting on the ratification of the Protocol, why do not follow a phased approach similar to what other regional blocks in Asia or South America are doing? The article mentions the example of the ASEAN countries. These countries are following a model of integration which is very similar to the African one. Both regions aim at achieving progressively the status of an Economic Community: the ASEAN Economic Community for the Southern-Eastern Asian countries, and the African Economic Community for the African ones. In Africa, the path for achieving the African Economic Community was firstly defined by the Lagos Plan of Action for the Economic Development of Africa (1980), and lastly detailed in the Treaty of Abuja for the establishment of the African Economic Community (1991).

However, the modalities with which Africa and South-East Asia are pursuing their economic integration objectives are very different. While the Abuja Treaty foresees the future establishment of a Customs Union as an intermediate step for the creation of a Common Market first and finally, of a Monetary Union, ASEAN countries are pointing to the establishment of a Common Market temporarily bypassing the establishment of a Customs Union. In fact, aware of the difficulties to achieve this form of economic integration due to the wide differentials in average duty rates among its members (they vary from more than 10% of Cambodia to 0% in Singapore), they decided to put temporarily aside the establishment of a Customs Union, focusing on the achievement of all the other elements that are typical of a Common Market. This model, which is a slap in the face to the orthodox theories of economic integration based on the assumption that the different form of integration must follow each other in a linear and pre-determined path, has been nicknamed by some economists “Common Market minus” (CM-). Its characteristic is that aims at achieving the freedom of movement in the typical production factors that characterize a Common Market (goods, services, capital, and persons), but with an initial exclusion of certain areas from full liberalization. Indeed, these areas are included in a "negative list" for which the full liberalisation will be achieved at a later stage, based on the readiness of the parties. The Customs Union is currently in this list.

In the area of movement of persons, here is where the ASEAN model becomes particularly interesting. Aware of the difficulties to achieve a full liberalization of this freedom over the entire region, ASEAN States have decided to prioritize the mobility of business people and of so called “skilled people” (i.e., investors, professional service providers, traders or students graduated in sectors for which there is a high demand in the region), through a relaxation of visa requirements for travelling in the ASEAN area.

This approach is not new to Africa. The AfCFTA is an example, as it includes a number of elements (such as the free movement of people, services, investment and capital) that characterize deeper forms of integration, such as Common Markets. But there are many other cases (read this post for a general overview). The establishment of a Free Trade Area at continental level is not contemplated by the Abuja Treaty, that only foresees the establishment of Customs Unions “at the level of each REC”, followed by their subsequent merger into a continental Customs Union. The AfCFTA was formally introduced in 2012, by a Decision of the Heads of State and Government of the African Union (Decision Assembly/AU/Dec.394(XVIII), adopted during the 18th Ordinary Session held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), after they realized that the roadmap designed in the Abuja Treaty for the establishment of the African Economic Community was encountering tremendous delays, with many RECs in the continent that have not even managed to create a Free Trade Area (FTA). Among the eight RECs recognized by the African Union, half of them has currently not achieved yet this status. They are the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD). Other two of them, namely SADC and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) have achieved partial FTAs, as not all their member States participate in them. For instance, the COMESA FTA is participated by 16 out of its 21 member States, while the SADC FTA is participated by 13 out of its 16 members, with Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Comoros that are still out of it.

On the other hand, the Tripartite, an initiative launched in 2015 with the aim to combine into an enlarged Free Trade Area three RECs in Africa, namely: the EAC, SADC and COMESA, approved in March 2023 an Agreement on Movement of Businesspersons to facilitate the movement of traders and other professional service providers within the territories of the 3 Regional Economic Communities by relaxing visa requirements for such categories. This is an approach similar to the one followed by ASEAN countries. Pending the ratification of the AU Protocol Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence and Right of Establishment (which could take long time), this could be a temporary solution to explore and try to develop on a continental scale.

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