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Brexit appears to reveal a growing dissatisfaction with globalization. But, on the basis of debates leading to and in the aftermath of the referendum, it seems that Britain’s decision to quit the EU is a mere hiccup in regional integration processes. Regionalism as a product of globalization is unstoppable, including in Africa.


The referendum on whether the Britain should stay or leave the European Union is over. That is unless the ongoing campaign, which has seen the collection of over 2.5 million signatures by those seeking for a second opinion on the referendum, succeeds. The proponents of an independent Britain, outside the 28-member EU regional bloc, carried the day with over 52% of the votes cast, while those who supported Britain’s remaining within the European Union garnered 48% of votes. Nevertheless, the aftershocks of the referendum and its implications continue to reverberate not only at the epicentre, which is Britain and Europe, but across the globe as well.

The interplay of realism versus liberalism in the Brexit debate

Although in the run up to the referendum the main discourse skirted around the economy, immigration and sovereignty, underneath these issues the debate was obviously influenced by two broad age-old subterranean ideological forces, realism and liberalism. These two general theories have for centuries influenced and shaped our perceptions of international relations. While liberalism school of thought has mainly been in favour of globalization and to an extent regional integration processes across the globe, idealism has often been more inclined towards a more traditional international political system, based on state centricism, and modeled along the Westphalia peace agreement.

In the case of Britain’s decision to quit the EU, realism, at least superficially, seems to have had an upper hand in explaining the outcome of the referendum. The voting pattern, slightly skewed in favour of Brexit, can be perceived as a growing dissatisfaction with globalization. Nevertheless, on the basis of debates leading to and in the aftermath of the referendum it seems that Britain’s decision to quit the EU is a mere hiccup in the regional integration processes. Regionalism as a product of globalization, hinged on liberal ideology, is on a cruise across the globe and seems unstoppable.

Regionalism as a panacea for Africa’s socio-economic and political challenges

This is especially the case in Africa, where regional integration efforts, as outlined in Africa’s Agenda 2063, have continued to be actively pursued at regional and sub-regional levels, more so as a panacea for economic, peace and security, as well as social challenges. In addition to economic benefits of regional integration, regional blocs such as the East African Community - in the case of Burundi crisis - and the Economic Community of West African States - in the wake of Burkina Faso political debacle - have been at the forefront of peaceful resolution and prevention of conflicts within member states. This meaningfulness of regional integration in providing solutions to socio-economic and political challenges makes it an attractive initiative across the continent.

In this regard the two significant parameters that are likely to continue pushing forward regionalism across the continent, within the context of Britain’s referendum and its relations with the EU, are urbanisation and the youth. In the case of urbanisation, the voting pattern in the concluded British referendum was skewed with regard to rural versus urban populations. The majority of voters in rural areas reportedly overwhelmingly voted for an exit, as opposed to most voters within large cosmopolitan centres across Britain. For instance in London, over 62% of voters backed closer ties with EU. This a voting pattern is an indication that more people within urban centres have a positive outlook of globalization and regionalism, as compared to rural folks.

Therefore based on the urban versus rural voting trends in Britain’s referendum, and statistics that indicate an upward trend on rural-urban migration across Africa, the continent is more likely to embrace regionalism going into the future. Within the last two decades, at 3.5% per year, Africa has had the highest urban population growth. With this urban growth expected to rise, and projections pointing that between 2010 and 2025, Africans living in cities will account for at least 85% of the total population; most Africans are likely to pick up the urban global culture. This will lead to majority of Africans defining themselves less on the basis of national identities, and more as global citizens. Thus like in the Britain’s context there is likely to be more support for regional integration processes as urbanization takes root across most parts of the continent.

The second parameter that indicates continued support for regionalism across Africa is the age factor. In Britain’s EU referendum, majority of young voters, up to 75%, between the ages of 18 and 34, mainly voted for the UK to remain within the EU. However, older UK citizens voted to quit the union. It’s highly likely that these young people, who are the future policy makers, and in favour of globalization are likely to pursue policies and constitutional procedures that favour regional integration. In the case of Africa, with a huge population of young people, over a half aged below twenty years, and still rapidly growing, the continent’s majority constituents are more likely to favourably view regional integration efforts. This is likely to be buttressed by the shared common global identities and culture.

Lessons for regionalism in Africa from Brexit

Nevertheless, despite the deepening and widening of regional integration across the Africa, there is need to develop policy framework, in addition to legislations that endear ordinary African citizens to the integration processes. This is especially important, coming within the backdrop of UK’s referendum that reflected increased feelings of disenfranchisement by ordinary EU citizens. The disconnect between political elites, who formulate policies, and ordinary citizens, who are heavily impacted by these policies, should be narrowed. To attain this, the policies formulated with the involvement of constituents of a regional government, should be transformed into pragmatic policies that add value to the welfare of common citizens. This will cure the elitist tag that is associated with regional blocs and ensure the cultivation of common regional identities.

The other lesson that can consolidate the future of regionalism across Africa is how to manage the transition from nationalism to regionalism. Based on Britain’s referendum it’s obvious that even after decades of deepened regional integration, a strong sense of attachment to sovereignty by individual nation-states is difficult to forego. This rising spectre of ultra-nationalism has not only been witnessed by the recent decision of Britain to pull out of the EU, but has also popped up across significant member states of the EU. In France, Netherlands and Germany right wing conservative parties, bolstered by Britain voters’ decision to ditch the EU, are already beating the drums of nationalism and calling for exit from the EU. Therefore, for Africa, as it embraces regional integration as a means of ensuring an economically, politically, and socially integrated continent, it should gradually develop policies that are in harmony with national and regional interests of member states. This will ensure effective, efficient, and progressive integration processes.

Brexit was defined by identity politics

In conclusion, it’s important to note that the decision of UK to leave the EU, although on the surface can be explained on the basis of realism theory, is not an outright threat to globalisation and extension regionalism. This is true especially within an economic and cultural standpoint. On the contrary, the voting trends in the UK referendum thus seem to have mostly been informed by identity politics, and less by the realities of regional political economy of Britain vis a vis those of the EU.

The role of urbanisation and youths in globalization, in addition to the interconnected nature of the global financial system, will enhance regionalism and other facets of globalization, more so across Africa, giving more credence and relevance to liberalism as a school of thought in the study of international relations.

* Sekou Toure Otondi is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, University of Nairobi. His research interests are regional integration - with a specific focus on East African Community - and foreign policy analysis, especially of African states. He can be reached at [email protected]  or through his twitter handle @JAKAMUNGA.



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