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AU and EU: Poor and rich man's club

Staff Reporter

Both are grappling with regional integration, but remain poles apart.

As African Union (AU) leaders continue to hold emergency summits in Addis Ababa and establish yet another futile presidential committee on Libya, European Union (EU) leaders continue to hold emergency summits on Libya and the EU Council of heads of state holds its annual summit in Brussels this week.

With the continuing challenges of regional integration in Europe and Africa it is worth examining whether the nine-year-old 53-member AU can learn lessons from the 53-year-old 27-member EU. The AU has, after all, consciously modelled its key institutions on those of the EU. The AU is currently attempting to unite a continent of 800million inhabitants from the Cape to Cairo, while the EU is striving to bring together 500-million people from Sofia to Stockholm.

The AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), emerged in 1963 as an attempt to liberate the continent from colonial rule. The European Economic Community (EEC), the forerunner of the EU, emerged in 1957 as an effort to prevent another war among its members. This is, however, a tale of a rich man’s club and a poor man’s club: while the EU accounts for about 30% of the world’s economy, Africa accounts for less than 2% of world trade.

Both the AU and the EU have been accused of being elite-driven bodies that suffer from a “democratic deficit” by not consulting properly with their citizens. But while the EU represents a carefully calibrated balance between supranationalism and sovereignty, decision-making within the AU remains dominated by its heads of state. Unlike the EU, where power is shared among its institutions, the AU is a top-down, heads of state-driven body where even decisions that could be dealt with by the executive council of ministers or ambassadors are often placed on its agenda.

The EU Council of heads of state, unlike the AU Assembly, also has a permanent secretariat that ensures the implementation of decisions is followed up. While the EU has gradually developed a complicated system of qualified majority voting for 80% of its legislation, the AU still conducts most of its business through unanimity voting.

Establishing independence
The AU Commission secretariat is headed by a chairperson (Gabon’s Jean Ping) and nine commissioners. Its main task is to implement the decisions of AU organs. In practice, however, the commission has struggled to establish its independence. Under the leadership of the AU’s first chair, between 2003 and 2008, Mali’s Alpha Konaré, the nine commissioners often acted as if they were accountable to the leaders who had elected them, rather than to the chair.

An AU audit report of December 2007—chaired by Nigeria’s Adebayo Adedeji and involving former speaker of South Africa’s Parliament, Frene Ginwala—was scathing about the administrative and management failings of the Konaré Commission. In addition, only 50% of approved tasks were implemented in 2006, with most directorates underspending by between 70% and 90%.

The Brussels-based EU Commission, in stark contrast, is the “guardian of the treaties” and initiates most of the body’s legislation, issuing about 5 000 directives and decisions annually. The commission is also the only international body of its kind with supranational powers. Its influence is, however, somewhat constrained by the European Council’s role in setting the strategic direction for the organisation. Power still flows directly from Berlin, Paris, London and Rome and not just from Brussels.

The commission is headed by a president (Portugal’s José Manuel Barroso), assisted by a 26-strong College of Commissioners. The commission’s “golden age” occurred under its most dynamic president, France’s Jacques Delors, who helped create a single European market in 1992.

If governments refuse to abide by commission decisions Brussels can take them to the European Court of Justice to seek a judgment. The commission is, however, usually astute enough to work with members and often accommodates rather than confronts governments. The European Commission has a staff of 24 000 compared with the AU Commission’s paltry 617 personnel. While the AU budget of $260-million is irregularly paid by its member states, the EU budget of €141,9billion is always paid by its members.

‘Ideals of the organisation’
The president of the EU Commission—unlike the chair of the AU Commission—helps pick his commissioners, can reshuffle their portfolios and can fire them with the support of the commission. Unlike AU staff, the EU Commission staff are paid at the level of top international organisations like the United Nations, are multilingual and often believe strongly in the ideals of the organisation. Entry into the EU Commission also requires competitive written and language exams and some of the “best and brightest” of Europe’s technocrats work in the organisation. Although the AU does have some impressive staff, it also has incompetent deadwood.

Unlike the AU (with a few exceptions), senior EU staff typically work 50 to 55-hour weeks. Both the AU and the EU also have their own national and linguistic mafia. Neither organisation bases promotions strictly on a meritocratic system, but often on the power of influential networks and godfathers. Both have suffered from mismanagement and corruption.

The EU may be even more nepotistically nationalistic than the AU, as EU commissioners are chosen along largely national lines. They also tend to show less independence of their national governments than AU commissioners. Half the AU’s commissioners are women, in contrast to the EU’s one-third. And while the EU Commission has delegations in more than 120 countries and an international foreign service, the AU has offices only in New York, Washington, DC and Brussels.

The AU’s 265-member Pan African Parliament was established in South Africa in 2004 and has advisory rather than legislative functions. The parliament attracted much controversy over reports of poor financial management. It has effectively been a toothless talkshop and represents one of Africa’s worst efforts at political alchemy. With national parliaments barely functioning effectively and often acting as presidential rubber-stamps, one wonders whether the creation of a costly continental parliament was really sensible.

The European Parliament, in contrast, was set up in 1952 and was directly elected from 1979. It remains the only EU body that enjoys this democratic distinction. Paradoxically, this quasi-legislative body has no powers to propose legislation, which is the prerogative of the EU Commission and EU Council. The parliament’s 785 parliamentarians meet in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg, attracting much criticism over profligate expenditure.

The body approves the EU budget and the appointment of the commission’s president and can dismiss the entire commission. The low turnouts at parliamentary elections, however, demonstrate the low priority that EU citizens accord this body: only 43% of eligible voters cast ballots for the European Parliament in 2009.

While European integration is often compared to a bicycle on which all members have to keep pedalling to avoid falling off, African integration has often resembled a bumpy ride on the back of a rickety mammy-wagon on potholed roads with failing brakes and lights and the memorable sign “No condition is permanent” inscribed on the vehicle.

Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and author of The Curse of Berlin: Africa After the Cold War

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