EU-AU cooperation on cross-border digital services and trade
Chloe Teevan and Melody Musoni look at the soon-to-be-released Digital Trade Protocol, which is a key component of both the AfCFTA and of building an African digital single market. They argue that the EU, which is undergoing its own long digital journey, can be a real partner.
As part of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the Digital Trade Protocol is due to be released in early 2024. It will be one of the key components of both the AfCFTA and of building an African digital single market (DSM), encompassing not just trade but also wider digital services and platforms. The EU, which is undergoing its own long digital journey, can be a real partner.
With a vision of interoperable cross-border trade, innovations and services, the AU has also recently released its Digital ID Framework and is moving forward with the implementation of its Data Policy Framework. At the same time, the EU and its member states – as Team Europe – aim to expand their global digital footprint, including notably in Africa.
They are exploring how to put together an offer that meets African demands and positions Team Europe as a key partner. Under the Global Gateway strategy, the EU plans to build hard infrastructure to support digital connectivity, wider governance efforts and local digital economies. Team Europe is also supporting the development of the African data economy and beginning to explore how to support e-governance and e-commerce.
To advance the African DSM, the EU and AU should collaborate on developing interoperable digital services and the regulatory frameworks to support them. The AU can draw upon the EU’s experiences and tailor strategies unique to the African context. By engaging in this dialogue, the EU can support the AU’s quest for digital integration, regulatory coherence and inclusive social and economic development through the African DSM.
Building digital single markets
The construction of the EU’s DSM is an ongoing project that is gradually breaking down barriers to cross-border digital trade and access to networks and services. At the heart of this project is the continuing drive towards increased interoperability and free flow of data. This includes the EU’s interoperability framework for public services, the updated e-IDAS regulation for interoperable digital ID, the Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA) for smooth digital bank transfers and most recently the EU Data Strategy.
This drive towards interoperability comes against a backdrop of a common rulebook on issues such as data protection, competition law and consumer protection. EU partners can use these tools and the political and technical processes to embark on the same journey, albeit with an understanding that different contexts will require different approaches.
Africa recently started building its DSM with the creation of the AfCFTA, the AU’s Digital Transformation Strategy and Agenda 2063. The continent has also put in place other frameworks which include the AU Data Policy Framework (guiding member states on issues around data access, use and sharing), the Digital ID Framework (promoting use of interoperable digital ID systems), the older AU Cyber Security and Data Protection Convention (aka Malabo Convention regulating e-commerce transactions on the continent and addressing cybersecurity and data protection aspects) and shortly an AI strategy (giving direction on how Africa develops and uses AI). All these developments are relatively new and now need to be implemented at national and regional levels.
There is still a great need to build more digital infrastructure, operationalise policy and regulatory frameworks, promote an enabling environment for innovation and entrepreneurship and capacitate the workforce with digital skills. For instance, there is no uniform mechanism for cross-border data flows across the AfCFTA, despite the continent’s Malabo Convention on data protection having come into operation. Technical challenges such as use of outdated infrastructures or technologies also make it difficult for digital platforms to be interoperable.
Interoperability as the key to cross-border public and private services
Digital technologies have become the bridge that connects and empowers interactions and transactions, but in most parts of the world, different systems in different countries prevent smooth cross-border interoperability. At a time of growing geopolitical and geoeconomic competition, access to larger markets is essential to growing scalable businesses both in Europe and Africa.
Even in the EU, building interoperable services is a work in progress. The EU is only now moving towards adopting a truly harmonised European digital identity and digital wallet, which, coupled with improvements to its interoperability framework, should allow for smoother access to both public and private services across all 27 EU member states.
Other regions of the world, including Africa, have the chance to build interoperability by design into their own e-government and e-payments infrastructure. This would allow them to avoid some of the long and tedious changes that European countries have had to go through.
Other regions of the world, including Africa, have the chance to build interoperability by design into their own e-government and e-payments infrastructure. This would allow them to avoid some of the long and tedious changes that European countries have had to go through to develop interoperability gradually.
African governments and the private sector share the same vision of ensuring that private and public services and platforms are accessible and enable seamless transactions. Most governments opt for e-government services that promote the use of open standards and interoperable systems to make it easier for citizens to access government services online.
At a continental level, there is a push to make digital ID acceptable across Africa for seamless access to e-services and other platforms. The AU’s Interoperability Framework on Digital ID proposes guiding principles to make cross-border interoperability possible. However, the lack of adequate infrastructure, lack of technology neutrality and adoption of diverse digital ID standards across the continent are barriers to interoperable digital ID in Africa. This is also compounded by the lack of national cybersecurity strategies and measures to secure digital platforms and inadequate implementation and enforcement of data protection and privacy laws in some African countries.
The soon anticipated AfCFTA Digital Trade Protocol should spell out exactly how digital trade on the continent will take place. It will lay the groundwork for an already swiftly growing e-commerce sector, and should facilitate a growing number of digital services that rely on data sharing across borders. Yet, operationalising the protocol will still take a great deal of effort and will rely on further developing policies and regulations in key areas, including data sharing, competition policy, intellectual property, consumer protection, cybersecurity and Interoperable digital payments.
Given that the EU has been supporting Africa on its digital transformation journey, there is a real opportunity for both partners to renew and strengthen their partnership.
An agenda for EU-Africa cooperation
Given that the EU has been supporting Africa on its digital transformation journey, there is a real opportunity for both partners to renew and strengthen their partnership. As Africa takes further steps towards developing its own DSM, the EU can engage African policymakers to get a clear picture of the support Africa needs moving forward. This also includes the EU being more open and transparent in sharing Europe’s successes and the challenges it has faced in establishing its own cross-border interoperable digital services, to develop new areas of potential collaboration for the future.
For example, both Europe’s interoperability framework and digital ID system are both in the process of being updated so as to improve their efficacy, while Africa’s e-governance and digital ID systems, along with their accompanying policy frameworks, are in early developmental stages. In this context, there exists an opportunity for both blocs to exchange ideas and information on how to make interoperability across multiple jurisdictions work.
The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.