“A nation without borders is not a nation,” said Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States. Yet around the same time as Reagan made this comment, almost 30 years ago, a treaty was signed on board the Princess Marie Astrid on the Moselle River, close to a small town, Schengen, in a very small country, Luxembourg. A small town whose name would become the byword for nations without borders. That original treaty included just nine European countries and proposed the abolition of borders, allowing vehicles and residents to cross their common borders without stopping, as and where they wished. Nearly 15 years later the same treaty was expanded to include 22 EU member states and Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland but excluding the UK and Ireland. Thus physical borders were removed across Europe to allow freedom of movement for 400 million residents of 28 European countries allowing free travel throughout this vast area.
Hurrah for Schengen! A role model for all to witness and copy, and one that I have been widely quoting in efforts to encourage similar cross-border relaxation across East and Southern Africa, not just for tourists right now, but for business as well in the future. Schengen was indeed the bright star for borderless partnerships in Africa to follow.
In East Africa, just two years ago, a tourist visa was launched, allowing travellers to enjoy three countries – Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda – with a single visa costing around $100. The difference from Schengen is of course in the name “tourist visa” as work is not permitted with this visa. Sadly two big and obvious players in the region – Tanzania and Ethiopia – are not part of the uni-visa and are unlikely to join in the foreseeable future. But three presidents in East Africa have started the initiative, which we all hope can be rolled out across the continent
Further south, after the successful co-hosting of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) General Assembly in August 2013, Zimbabwean and Zambian ministers also decided to push ahead with the same concept, quoting the success of Schengen. A new ‘Kaza’ univisa for Zambia and Zimbabwe was launched, saving tourists time and money with only one visa now needed to visit both countries. In effect, a relaxation of border control, with restrictions, but a win-win for tourists. This visa costs just $50 and is expected to boost the flow of tourists between Zimbabwe and Zambia, particularly across the Victoria Falls border. The univisa also covers those visiting Botswana for day trips through certain points of entry. It is hoped that in time Kaza will be extended to include Angola, Botswana and Namibia and other SADC countries and in time include borderless partnerships across the whole reason. Again we are just talking tourism as any visit for work is specifically excluded by the regulations.
So, returning to Europe, who would have guessed that one of the most successful initiatives since the war would be derailed by a dictatorship in North Africa, over 1 700 miles away from that peaceful hamlet of Schengen on the Moselle River. The catastrophe in Syria has led to a mass migration of thousands, escaping the horrors of civil war in the region and, in the process, the whole concept of Schengen has, according to one UK politician “now hit the buffers of the real world and is falling apart”. In reality, the external borders of the Schengen area were not strong enough and migrants, possibly infiltrated by terrorists who have entered Europe illegally, crossed borders at random, heralding the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. One by one, EU countries have closed their borders while a solution is sought in parliaments all over Europe. The Schengen visa does not shine so brightly right now, as it faces almost impossible pressure from all sides.
In a recent interview I was asked how the potential collapse of the Schengen Agreement would impede similar initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa. I accept that there are lessons to be learned, especially the strengthening of security on the outer perimeters of a borderless partnership, but I still believe in the Schengen concept for Africa. Inevitably, cross-border trade and tourism must become pillars of the African economy in the next decade. Right now, border taxes, fees and bureaucratic restrictions stifle prosperity. Surely cutting away the red tape and opening borders will actually promote formal trade and increase government revenue?
Africa is already experiencing a significant rise in its economy and, with it, a growing prosperous middle class. Both fuelled by a dramatic increase in manufacturing as this continent becomes less rural, more urban and more industrialised, in part filling the gap caused by China’s downturn. I believe that freedom to trade across borders without hindrance is an essential ingredient for growth. Yes, every country is proud of its heritage contained within its borders, and yes, a nation without borders is not a nation, but those borders must be open with easy access for both trade and tourism if Africa is to prosper.