Four lessons from Brexit and EU fallout for East African Community

Saturday July 02 2016

Now that the immediate turmoil of Britain’s exit vote from the European Union has somewhat subsided, it is a good time to ask what lessons that vote holds for the East African Community. Four stand out.

  • One, a community must be based on values shared by all.
  • Two, a community won’t endure if it is not built on the consent of the people.
  • Three, integration is fragile and it takes but the opportunism of a few leaders in a member state to wreck it.
  • Four, the youth must be given voice in integration; if not, the future — complete with its uncertainties and challenges — will be shaped by those with the least stake in it, the old.

The first, second and fourth are lessons for the Community as a whole and the third, though a lesson for all, is particularly important for Kenya, which has ruined the EAC once before. Let’s flesh out each one of these lessons.

For the most part, the United Kingdom has never been one with core EU values. Rather, the UK prides itself in its exceptionalism and pursues a foreign policy that is defined more by what the country is against rather than what it stands for.

Little wonder then that Anglo-European relations have often been characterised by mutual antipathy. Britain, in the words of its former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, is “insular” with “very special, very original, habits and traditions.” That insularity contrasts sharply with Europe’s self-conscious cosmopolitanism. And so, even though the UK is Europe’s second largest economy, Europe sees it as a difficult partner.

In economics, this ‘nation of shop-keepers’ - as Napoleon Bonaparte famously called it – is often too pro-market for Europe. In diplomacy, it pivots too often and too strongly towards the US. In Union affairs, it is a miserly penny-pincher and a veto-wielding curmudgeon, constantly complaining and slowing down important aspects of greater European cohesion, by refusing to join the Euro and the Schengen area, for instance.


Many Europeans are not surprised by the UK’s exit vote. The UK has always been deeply eurosceptic. Euro-barometer, a Public Opinion Research Service of the European Commission, has surveyed public opinion in Europe since 1973, asking nationals of member states whether the Union was a good thing; a bad thing or neither a good nor a bad thing.

Just before the Brexit vote, Danish Broadcasting Company DBR summarised forty years of these surveys and concluded that Britain was consistently the most eurosceptic country of all the large European economies.

Kenya’s attitude is insufferable

Many East Africans will recognise Kenya’s stance in Britain’s European “exceptionalism.” Although Kenya is the region’s largest economy — and boasts its most educated population — it is strangely disconnected from the Community.

The intelligentsia in Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania closely follow Kenyan politics. It is not an interest reciprocated by the Kenyan intelligentsia, which is strangely incurious and embarrassingly ignorant about its neighbours. Yet visitors to Kenya remark on its worldly and globally oriented elite.

The disinterest in fellow community members arises not from an innate provincialism but from a deeper malaise: Kenya is in but not of East Africa. Its regional ambitions are rather modest: a market for its goods and expansion room for its companies. A few Kenyans may even go to school in Uganda, in the main, the movement is the other way. Kenya has nothing to learn from her community neighbours, it is rather a tutor to them.

We have learnt from Brexit that this mindset won’t do. And if we occasionally detect a flash of xenophobia towards Kenya in Tanzania and, to a small extent, in Rwanda, it is because Kenya’s attitude, like that of Britain in the EU, is insufferable.

The Community’s future lies in a convergence of values. That, in turn, depends on deepening cultural exchange and building common standards in education. The EAC has taken baby steps towards aligning professional standards and practices but without more, this is woefully inadequate.

Integration must work for majority

The second lesson from Brexit is that integration must work for the majority of the people or it does not work at all. The British ruling elite misread the public mood, missing out the national feeling on hot button issues like immigration and identity.

In a pre-Brexit survey by Prof Paul Whiteley of the University of Essex and Prof Harold Clarke, of the University of Texas, 52 per cent of the respondents thought that Britain could best control immigration outside the EU. Only three per cent thought immigration controls would be worse once Britain left the EU.

How could the elite be so wrong? Part of the answer lies in popular perceptions that the EU itself is in fact an elite project. Whiteley and Clarke’s survey reported that 64 per cent of graduates would vote to remain in Europe while only 25 per cent of those without formal qualifications would.

Comparable numbers showed up amongst the professional classes as against the unskilled. The jury is unanimous: those with higher education and globally marketable skills want a borderless world; those without want immigration barriers raised higher.

Would it be any different in the EAC? Would the Community survive a popular vote? Unlikely. A majority of the population lives far from the Community’s borders. With the exception of Rwanda and Burundi, both small countries with large populations close to international borders, few East Africans have crossed an international border and fewer still will cross one in their life.

At best, most East Africans are indifferent to their neighbours and, at worst, hostile to them as ‘foreigners.’ Consider a country like Malawi in contrast: 23 of its 28 districts have an international border. This means that the average Malawian will cross an international border many times in her life.

Thousands of Malawians live or have married from Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and even further afield from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia. Would Malawians vote to expel Mozambicans and Zambians from their country? Unlikely.

So far East Africa’s big idea is the push for political integration: one or two of current presidents are even thought to harbour ambitions of retiring to a future regional presidency. But there is a warning from Brexit here too: a headlong rush to political union without proper democratisation of regional institutions will be seen as elite-bargaining and, almost certainly, will unleash angry nationalism in member states. That would permanently damage the EAC.

Dangers of political opportunism

The third lesson is a warning about the dangers of political opportunism. The crisis unleashed by Brexit is of David Cameron’s making. Under pressure from Nigel Farage’s xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, the eurosceptic wing of the British Conservative Party lurched further to the right, becoming even more virulently anti-Europe, at least in its rhetoric.

There were two reasons for this: it was partly to outflank UKIP and beat back Nigel Farage’s inroads into the Conservative’s constituencies and partly to mobilise the burgeoning anti-immigration sentiment amongst conservative voters, many of whom were especially angry about the influx of cheap labour from places like Poland.

In 2013, faced with hardening anti-Europe sentiment, a split in his party and with an eye on the 2015 election, David Cameron made an opportunistic and craven deal with the eurosceptics. In exchange for their support, he would offer them an “IN” or “OUT” referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU. His cynical deal won him the 2015 election but it has just cost him his career.

Here, too, are important lessons for the EAC. In a fit of hubris in 2013, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda decided that Tanzania was a crimp on faster integration. They argued that it was time for ‘multi-speed EAC,’ code for the idea that Community members need not integrate at the same speed.

Laggards could take their time and the nimble, while the christened “the coalition of the willing” should be free to accelerate their own integration.

In quick succession Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda announced a series of huge infrastructure deals that excluded Tanzania but also included non-members, Ethiopia and South Sudan. The first of these was the ambitious Lamu Port — Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) corridor project. The second project would be a new standard gauge railway linking the port of Mombasa to Kigali through Uganda.

President Jakaya Kikwete complained that this “coalition of the willing” was a claw-back on EAC integration but was ignored. Tanzania then said that under these conditions, everything — including exit of the EAC — was back on the table.

Kenyan leaders must remember that when the Community failed before, in 1977, it is they who engineered it. If they detect a certain hesitation or distrust from other EAC members, they should appreciate that neighbours, especially Tanzania, has only now begun to rebuild trust.

Youth exclusion

The final lesson speaks both to the nature of regional democracy and the role of the youth in it. Brexit was a revolt of the old: Britain left the EU because the old — who had the least stake in the future of Europe and need not live with the consequences of exit — lost faith in the future that Europe held out.

Among 18-24-year-olds, 75 per cent voted for Europe. Given that voter turnout increased with age and that Britain has an aging population, the youth sold their future short by staying away and letting their fathers and grandfathers shape a future they won’t have to live with.

Given the margin of the Brexit victory — 52 per cent to 48 per cent — it is almost certain that the ‘remain’ voters would have won if young voters had turned out in larger numbers.

It is a sobering thought: East Africa, unlike Britain, has a young population: on average, between 25 to 30 per cent of the population of the Community is between 15 and 30 years old. Like Britain though, the youth have not been turning out to vote and so, they are leaving decisions that shape the future to those who have the least stake in it.

In these lessons lies a grim message: The EAC should look to Brexit and see that a lack of common values; a growing democratic deficit; self-serving nationalism and political opportunism coupled with youth exclusion will eventually sap and ultimately destroy regional integration.

Pausing to gloat rather than learn from Britain’s woes is exactly the kind of complacency the EAC does not need right now.

Wachira Maina is a constitutional lawyer.