A bright future awaits Britain post-Brexit in the Commonwealth markets

Lord Howell

In the swirl of post-Brexit debate the role of, and the implications for, the Commonwealth have been raised with increasing frequency.

One question is whether the Commonwealth network of 53 nations, with its growing markets and trans-continental spread, could in any way be for the UK a substitute for EU single market membership.

A second question is how withdrawal from the EU by the UK impacts upon various Commonwealth countries, bearing in mind the strong pre-referendum message from many Commonwealth leaders that the UK should remain and not leave.

This stance is of course in striking contrast with Commonwealth views back in 1972 which were understandably hostile to British EU (then EEC) membership – evidence of how radically world trade conditions have changed in the intervening decades.

In one sense, posing the first question is to confuse apples and oranges on a grand scale. The two bodies, Commonwealth and European Union, are of course totally different – in character, origin, structure and relevance to the UK economy.

While the EU is a political construct the Commonwealth is much more organic. While the EU is a mixture of supranational tendencies and intergovernmental cooperation, today’s Commonwealth draws its strength from the extraordinary connectivity at countless non-governmental levels, including flourishing business and professional links, which a common working language, common legal procedures, common accounting and commercial practices, and common cultural links both allows and reinforces.

Commonwealth Day
Commonwealth member flags in Parliament Square – Picture Credit: Flickr/Foreign and Commonwealth Office

What has emerged in the modern Commonwealth network is not an old-style trading bloc but something much more novel and suited to the network age – a grass-roots-driven type of organisation. Perhaps surprisingly to some, this is proving more suitable to the expansion of trade and commerce in the digital age, with its growing emphasis on information and data exchange,  than the more dated EU hierarchy, with its heavy and top-down bias towards centralisation, scale and integration. Thus the assumptions of 1972 – that the UK’s “destiny” and best trade prospects lay in Europe and not in the Commonwealth – are being turned on their head.

For example, according to a recent report, published by the Commonwealth Secretariat, Commonwealth trade and investment flows of all kinds are now  growing noticeably faster than overall world trends, and now account for some 15 percent of total world exports. The report also found a “Commonwealth Advantage” of up to 20 per cent which is described as the practical economic value, in both trading and investment interchanges, of a shared language and systems between members when compared to non-Commonwealth nations.

UK exports to Commonwealth states, once, half a century ago, 50 percent of the total, have over the years fallen to a low point of about 10 to 12 percent. But from here the upward direction of travel is clear. Whatever relationship the UK ends up agreeing with the EU Single Market, the time for a sharply increased focus on both Commonwealth and adjacent markets is now ripe, and crucial for the UK’s continuing prosperity and, because of connectivity, for other European economies as well.

The EU referendum result means the UK will regain control over its trade and investment agreements can i buy accutane over the counter once the EU deal is signed. A number of Commonwealth nations have expressed interest in trade talks such as India, Australia and New Zealand. Australia and NZ have offered trade negotiators to help the UK.

However, the UK must see any trade deals from the Commonwealth perspective as well. It must avoid sounding narrowly Anglo-centric. Successful trade and investment relations should be a partnership of equals. Further deals must also cover non-economic relations, including in many cases security. Having shown other Commonwealth members the door back in 1972, we now need to knock politely and ask to be let back in.

When we do so we will find ourselves entering a very different world from the one we turned our backs on all those years ago. Then it seemed that all the best growth opportunities lay in Europe. Now it is to Asia, Africa and Latin America we need to look for the big prizes, and the Commonwealth network is the gateway to many of these fast-growing new economies.

There has been significant structural Departmental change with the Ministry of International Trade under Dr Liam Fox being set up. This new creation is welcome but two further changes are required. First, there needs to be a much stronger and freer-standing Commonwealth unit inside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Second, the Commonwealth needs to be given a place and a voice at the Brexit negotiating table – or tables.

For the UK to respond to the new situation requires a vastly expanded degree of attention to Commonwealth member states, large and small. The legacy of common working language and past friendships can certainly help. But much more will be needed. Relying on unreconstructed old ties with Commonwealth member states will no longer suffice.

Successful business has to cover not just actual deals and contracts but a whole framework of supporting soft power deployment – including everything from cultural and professional links to easier and friendlier travel and visa policies.

As the new Commonwealth Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland, told a parliamentary committee: “Much, much more energy will now go into enriching the Commonwealth relationship,” adding that she saw the need now “to turbocharge the Commonwealth trade advantage”.

This doesn’t mean just piling on more trade missions. It means involving the UK more deeply than ever in the new connected world system, and especially in the immense expansion of Chinese infrastructure connections across Central Asia and right into the heart of Europe. Here the Hong Kong connection, with its substantial UK-friendly bias and past history, can be an invaluable aide.

We live in a world seemingly falling apart yet paradoxically coming together as never before through the staggering power of constant and instant communications. Fragmentation versus super-connectivity – the two contradictory forces prevail simultaneously, bringing bewilderment and confusion to governments and governed alike.

For the UK in a post-Brexit world, it is high time for more Commonwealth togetherness. The case for a decisive strategy of redirection of trade and investment, both ways, and for the supporting policies towards Commonwealth and developing country markets was strong long before Brexit, and it will grow stronger still long after the Brexit dust has settled.

The article was first published in The Telegraph.

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