Free trade has taken far too long to come to Africa

But while it’s taken far too long it does seem to be getting closer:

Africa has built the world’s largest free trade area with 1.3 billion customers, heralded as a chance to begin a new area of prosperity.

The agreement, signed by 54 African states and creating a bloc encompassing economies worth $2.5 trillion, took almost 20 years to negotiate. It is hoped that the African Continental Free Trade Area will give its members the benefits of economies of scale and cheaper imports, which would mean more affordable products. The countries have lacked many of these typical advantages of free trade.

There is that view out there - a particularly silly one in our opinion - that free trade is just the manner by which those of us in the rich countries continue to pillage and colonialise those in the poor. Obviously, we don’t agree. But even if you do want to maintain trade barriers between rich and poor on some spurious grounds of infant industry protection this is still an advance, this free trade area.

The entire continent of Africa is, in economic terms, about the size of the UK. Togo around and about the economic size of Swansea. Swaziland of Wolverhampton. Nigeria or South Africa perhaps equal to London.

Whatever we do about trade beyond the borders of this sceptered isle we all know that we’d be immeasurably poorer if we had trade barriers between the conurbations within it. Even if nothing else just that economies of scale argument - no one British town is large enough to support an entire supply chain of all the necessaries for an advanced industrial society. It would be absurd for Bath, Bristol, Gloucester and Swindon all to have their own steel mills, fertiliser and tyre factories. And yet that’s the sort of economy that a non-internal free trade Africa does have.

It may have taken too long to arrive and implementation is bound to be patchy for a time. But it’s still a good thing - Africans will be richer for it which is, after all, rather the point of having an African economy in the first place.