East Africa and the European Union

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My dissertation is titled “Taking Orders from Brussels?  External Actors and Regional Organizations in the Developing World.”  It focuses on regional organizations in the developing world, a group I refer to as DWROs.  Typically these organizations involve several neighboring developing countries coming together to pursue collectively beneficial goals.  While regional organizations in the developed world, especially the European Union (EU) have been thoroughly studied, DWROs remain undertheorized.  Accordingly, in the dissertation I test the relevance of five broad theoretical approaches to DWROs: hegemonic theories; rationalist theories; trade-related theories; post-colonial theories; and rhetorical theories.

My main case study in the dissertation is the East African Community (EAC), a DWRO that has had two incarnations: a first existence bringing together Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania between 1967 and 1977, and a second incarnation since 2000 that now includes Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan in addition to the original three members.  Despite the dramatic collapse of the first EAC, its successor has been heralded as “the most successful illustration of regional integration on the African continent” by both European and American officials.

How then are we to understand the emergence and evolution of the EAC since 2000?  I argue that two recent trends are increasingly driving the politics of East Africa.  First, an emerging coalition of East African business elites has welcomed the EAC’s export-friendly philosophy and now view the EAC, particularly its Secretariat, as a key ally in their efforts to shift decision-making on political-economic issues throughout East Africa away from national capitals and towards the regional level.  Second, external donors have lent the EAC substantial financial, technical, and rhetorical support.  The EAC received about a third of its total budget from external donors in 2006, but the proportion has been around two-thirds since 2012, dwarfing the contributions from the EAC’s own member states.

The EU in particular has embraced the nascent regional body, with an ever-deepening relationship with the EAC Secretariat that ranges from day-to-day contacts to the formal secondment of EU staff to the EAC headquarters in Arusha, Tanzania.  But has this relationship arguably gone too far?  While there is certainly an upside to the EU’s largesse, it may be coming at a cost to the EAC’s independence and legitimacy.  This tension was on display throughout the 2000s as part of the protracted and contentious negotiations between the EU and the EAC over a free-trade deal known as the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).  On a number of occasions during the EPA negotiations, the EU sought to have the EAC Secretariat intercede on its behalf vis-a-vis the East African governments, leading some in the region to conclude that the Secretariat had become an EU surrogate.

Today, the core of East Africa’s political and economic policy developments continues to be driven by this three-cornered alliance of export-oriented business elites, European donors, and the EAC organization.  Together, they have consistently pushed for the removal of trade barriers, improved infrastructure, and the harmonization of national policies, leading exports as a percentage of the EAC-5’s Gross Regional Product to rise from about 11% in 1998 to about 16% in 2014.  But while these are not necessarily bad policies per se, they do not always improve standards of living for ordinary East Africans, and can distract from other policy initiatives that would lead to more widely distributed gains.