Britain and the Commonwealth: Antidote to the EU, or a pointless pipe dream?

Flags of the Commonwealth member states flying in Parliament Square, London. Foreign and Commonwealth Office

By Loke Hoe Yeong

On Tuesday (22 March) when Lord Peter Mandelson, the former British cabinet minister and former European Commissioner for Trade, gave a speech at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, at the National University of Singapore, on what he deemed a disaster if Britain were to leave the European Union (EU), he was predictably asked about the “Commonwealth option” during the question and answer segment.

In brief, that refers to the option of the UK relying on trade with the countries of the Commonwealth, the grouping of 53 states that are mostly the territories of the former British Empire, in the event that the British electorate votes to leave the EU at a national referendum on 23 June this year.

The idea, commonly bandied about in eurosceptic circles, is that it would contain the fallout from any loss in trade privileges the UK would suffer, in the event it leaves the EU.

Its proponents argue that the UK has more in common with countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada – given their shared heritage since the colonial era as well as their largely similar legal systems – compared to EU countries like Romania and Bulgaria, as a basis for deeper trade relations.

In response, Lord Mandelson toed the official line of British governments, diplomatically and perfunctorily, along the lines of how the Commonwealth continues to be important to the UK.

He was being the diplomatic former cabinet minister, of course. Because if the report on the Commonwealth in The Economist just the previous week (“The Commonwealth: what’s the point of it?”) were to be believed, that grouping of nations is facing stasis to the point of facing an existential threat.

Is the Commonwealth becoming increasingly irrelevant?

Despite all its colonial baggage, the Commonwealth has long been lauded as a useful convention of rather diverse group of countries – a forum for discussing and tackling global issues and challenges. And the Commonwealth secretariat does not cost very much to upkeep, relatively speaking.

But it has lost the mindshare of most of even the citizens of its member states. Some place the blame squarely on the leadership of its current Secretary-General, the lackluster Kamalesh Sharma, who will be stepping down soon after being in the job for the past eight years.

The controversy in 2013 of Sri Lanka hosting the Commonwealth heads of governments meeting – CHOGM (“choggum”) as it is otherwise affectionately called – just four years after the brutal ending of a long standing civil war in that country, tainted the grouping in the eyes of many. India and Canada boycotted the summit in Colombo.

Observers were speculating whether Prince Charles, in representing Queen Elizabeth II who is the head of the Commonwealth, would even make the trip to Colombo and shake the hand of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He did so, in the end, with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

It remains to be seen whether the incoming Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Baroness Patricia Scotland, the former Attorney General would reignite interest in the grouping, as she prepares to assume that position next month.

No Commonwealth meeting of trade ministers ever held

But coming back to the question of the Commonwealth being the saviour of the UK if it does indeed withdraw from the EU later this year – will this contingency plan work?

It has been the pet idea of the proponents for Brexit, as the exit of Britain from the EU has been christened, including figures like Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London. Others have pointed out the less savoury aspects of the proposal – namely that there are some Britons who would rather do business with like-minded, English-speaking peoples from Australia, New Zealand and Canada, rather than migrants from Romania and Bulgaria.

But this is not going to work, and there is a very simple for it. Trade is not currently one of the Commonwealth’s remit, or at least not seriously so. The grouping has convened on issues from human rights to development, but there has never been a meeting of the trade ministers of the Commonwealth countries.

There have been calls for a Commonwealth free trade area to be created, but no concrete steps have yet been taken – if the proposal is even deemed feasible. Some say that it won’t work because of the huge economic differentials between the members of the Commonwealth.

Any free trade agreement would thus be a “shallow” one – hardly any reliable deal that the UK can fall back on, if it leaves the EU.

Moreover, the reality is that the UK’s earnings from exports to the Commonwealth constitute only 9.76% of its total exports, compared to 43.6% for its exports to the EU.

The Commonwealth is not the EU, nor even ASEAN or the ASEAN Economic Community, nor the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping. Currently, it does not have the prerequisites for building a meaningful free trade area.

The fantasy of Britain falling back on the Commonwealth for trade ties is a pipe dream, and its proponents should wake up to the fact.