With the Commonwealth Heads of Government in London meeting following immediately on from the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, the media’s eye has once again fallen upon this unique institution.
However some commentators have decided to use the opportunity to bash Brexit rather than actually evaluate the role the Commonwealth can have in the coming years. They have thrown up and torn down straw men such as political unions, a Commonwealth-wide free trade agreement (FTA), or immediate free movement across the entire network. It is probably quite telling that they can’t envisage any method of international co-operation other than the model Britain rejected in the referendum.
The Commonwealth could never and should never attempt to emulate the EU.
For a start, it is a far looser collection of states, who can leave at will (and do so instantaneously) and who can set their own trade and migration policies. For these reasons alone, a Commonwealth-wide FTA or migration deal is a non-starter.
However this looseness of association is based on one of the Commonwealth’s key strengths: the things we hold in common. The Commonwealth does not need political treaties, enforced harmonisation, or even a universal currency to hold it together. It stays together because member states share a culture, a history and values. Many of us share the same language, legal systems, sense of humour, sporting prowess (or lack of it), and sense of fair play, recent Australian cricketers aside. More than a dozen of us still share the same Head of State. In these ways and many more, we are far more of a demos than the EU ever was, although there will of course never be a “Commonwealth Parliament.”
And it is these links that we share that mean the Commonwealth can still be a big part of Britain’s future as we leave our EU membership in the past. We will not be part of a 53-nation trade area, but we can definitely seek to sign bilateral deals with many of them. We will not immediately have free movement across the network but that doesn’t mean we can’t explore proposals like restoring the Commonwealth Youth Visa, or at least returning many Commonwealth countries to its successor scheme. And we will not see a Commonwealth Union but that doesn’t mean member state governments can’t continue to work together both at international forums like CHOGM and on bilateral and multilateral levels as they do every single day.
On trade in particular, Commonwealth member states should be an immediate and top priority for FTAs. Some of these should be achievable almost immediately on leaving the EU. Countries like Singapore and New Zealand have a record of signing FTAs in a matter of months. The FTA between the two nations took just 11 months to agree despite it only being New Zealand’s second, and Singapore’s first, bilateral free trade agreement. For comparison the EU has so far taken over 8 years to complete a deal with Singapore.
Deals with some other Commonwealth countries may take longer, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be ambitious when the potential rewards are so huge. Trade between countries sharing a common language is on average 42% higher than countries without such a bond. Different legal origins have a detrimental effect on trade of between 10-25%. And factors like shared history and cultural similarities have a proven impact on the trade flows. With non-tariff barriers already low, removing tariffs could have a huge impact on trade and GDP in the UK and across the Commonwealth, as Policy Exchange argued in Global Champion.
Easing of migration controls may come as part of our trade negotiations while closer political links will naturally follow greater commerce, but trade should be the immediate priority and the Commonwealth – together with the United States – is the place to start. The Commonwealth is a part of our past, yes, but it should be an even bigger part of our future.