On June 13, just days before the U.K. referendum, the African Union announced that it would launch a single African passport — a move that came as a refreshing shift from looking at borders to keep out risks to viewing borders as gateways to achieve higher economic development.
The e-Passport, which officially launched on July 17, is an electronic document that permits all AU passport holders to enter any of the 54 AU member states without visa requirements. Much like the efforts that shaped the EU, the AU passport is a big step toward deeper integration among African nations by mobilizing the vast, wide-ranging resources to strengthen self-reliance and economic solidarity.
The implications are great: Open borders could bring in access to a cheaper, wider variety of raw materials and services and can lower trade and operating costs by benefiting from economies of scale. Challenges caused by unemployment — whether due to non-availability of jobs or mismatch of skills — can also be tackled with free movement of labor. And, as an added bonus, the increasing troubles over accessing risky migration channels can be mitigated by providing better opportunities in the home countries.
Currently, only 13 of the 54 member states offer liberal access (visa free or visa on arrival) to all Africans. African Development Bank recently released a report aimed at highlighting the economic benefits of visa openness by citing examples of Seychelles (a country that has been an early reformer in relaxing visa requirements to boost its tourism sector), and Mauritius and Rwanda (both of which saw an increase in African business and leisure travelers and consequently, an increase in economic activity).
While the positives are plenty, there’s also a lot that the AU could learn from the EU.
Brexit is a good reminder to tread lightly while dealing with shared space.
The biggest worry is an economic one – open routes will bring in tough competition for jobs, leaving the poor and working classes out in the cold. Those in the UK who viewed the EU as having only boosted corporate profits voiced their economic despair and voted to leave the Union. Similarly, some African nations suffering from high unemployment rates are already wary of immigrants taking up too many jobs. A rapid increase in immigration has the potential to disrupt communities. Migration, and by extrapolation even globalization is a contentious issue that ought to be handled with care.
Globalization, in its current form, has brought to light stark differences between its winners and losers. If the process is to succeed, it must succeed for the rich and poor alike. This is a tall order but one that must be met. The current laissez faire agreements have in fact benefitted elites far more than other classes. This has to be corrected — not by putting up walls, but by stricter regulations in the financial sector to ensure that welfare gains from global trade will reach the poorer sections of society. Also, social security nets should be strengthened to support and provide alternate opportunities for those who have lost their jobs due to structural unemployment. Increased spending on public infrastructure would also help improve general standard of living. Most of all, combined global efforts are required to keep fears of global capitalism at bay.
Worries expressed over the EU would only be intensified in the developing economies of Africa. While an all-Africa passport is certainly a step in the right direction, the AU needs to plan two steps ahead to ensure that its economic promises turn into ground realities that benefit all.