Brexit Britain looks to Commonwealth 2.0

Commonwealth HQ

It used to be a Eurosceptic fantasy for the Commonwealth to replace the EU as the UK’s main trading partner.

That may still be a fantasy, but Theresa May’s government sees the organisation, which includes Australia, Canada, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Singapore, as a launch pad for negotiating bilateral trade agreements and has earmarked six Commonwealth members as priorities for renewed incentives to promote trade and investment.

Athletes are currently competing in the Commonwealth Games in Australia’s Gold Coast, but politicians will not have long to wait for their own version.

At least 30 heads of state or government from the Commonwealth’s 53 member states are expected to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London between 16-20 April. Commonwealth officials hope Brexit will help fuel a new wave of interest in the organisation from London. Australia, Canada and New Zealand have been among the most enthusiastic to form a new free trade agreement with the UK after it leaves the EU.

Ahead of the summit, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said that the Commonwealth’s combined GDP of $10.5 trillion, accounting for almost 14% of the global economy.

Its economies have expanded by an average of 4.4% a year since the UK decided to join the EU in 1972, he added.

The UK’s Department for International Trade is over-stretched, making significant progress on new trade agreements with African countries before its Brexit transition period ends in December 2020 unlikely, but EURACTIV understands that it hopes to eventually offer more generous terms and access to the UK market than the EU EPAs.

However, the UK is currently in the process of attempting to roll over the EU’s existing trade deals, a handful of which cover Commonwealth countries, several of whom believe that they have sufficient leverage to force the UK to make concessions.

“Some of the demands we’ll probably hear about will be on things like agriculture quotas, such as quotas for their orange-sellers,” says Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform, of South Africa’s likely demands.

Britain has already promised to double the current export credit finance for trade and investment with South Africa to £3.5 billion.

South Africa is critical of the EU’s Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with African regional blocs and expects Britain, once outside the EU, to offer better terms. Pretoria’s Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies has suggested, albeit jokingly, that once Britain leaves the EU, it could apply to join the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).

In a report published Thursday (5 April), MPs on the Foreign Affairs committee called on the government to set out its “long-term vision for the UK’s relationship with the Commonwealth, and clarify what the 52 other members can expect from a ‘Global Britain’”.

The UK will assume the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office until 2020 at the summit.

“It is imperative that it begins with clear aims for what the UK wants to achieve by the end of its tenure in 2020, with a credible strategy, specific objectives and metrics for success,” the Committee stated.

“The UK helped to shape this organisation but it has neglected it in recent years,” said Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat.

There are still voices of caution. Sceptical UK officials have dubbed the idea of a Commonwealth revival ‘Empire 2.0’, and any hint of a return to the colonial era will ruffle feathers, particularly of African countries.

While it is keen to begin talks on a pact with the UK, India has suggested that the process could take seven years.

Others point out that while most of its members speak English, in economic terms the Commonwealth is a fraction of the size of the EU market. Forty-two percent of the UK’s exports went to the EU in 2017, compared to around 7% for the ten largest Commonwealth markets.

“Greece is bigger than New Zealand. Banging on about a free trade deal with New Zealand is going to make zero difference to Britain’s future in terms of trade,” former Treasury minister and Goldman Sachs banker Jim O’Neill told The Times last month.

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