Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Brexit has thrust Commonwealth summit out of the shadows and into the spotlight

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May comes out to meet Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari on the step of 10 Downing Street in London on April 16, 2018, ahead of a meeting on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

BEN STANSALL/Getty Images

As the leaders of the 53 Commonwealth countries prepare to gather this week in London for their biennial summit, there’s a growing sense of revival within the organization.

Once seen by many as a relic of the colonial era, the Commonwealth has suddenly become relevant, thanks largely to Brexit and the increasing isolationism in the United States. And, with 2.4 billion people and nearly US$10-trillion in total economic output, the organization is hard to ignore.

Trade will be a major topic of discussion during the two-day leaders’ meeting, which starts on Thursday with much of the focus on Britain’s departure from the European Union in March, 2019. But it won’t be the only topic. There will also be a discussion about a new charter on ocean governance to promote environmental protection and sustainable development of maritime industries, as well as a declaration on cybercrime and new guidelines for election observation.

Story continues below advertisement

The leaders will also have to wrestle with human rights and the treatment of LGBT communities in 37 member countries. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who heads to London for the summit after visiting France, has made LGBT rights a major concern at the Commonwealth, but leaders have controversially taken that off the agenda for this meeting.

And then there’s the issue of leadership. The Queen is turning 92 and the leaders will attend a special birthday concert. There’s also speculation they will privately discuss who should succeed her as head of the Commonwealth. It’s not a hereditary position and her successor won’t automatically assume the title. So who will it be?

Here’s a look at what to expect from the meeting.

Trade

Commonwealth leaders have talked about increasing trade among member states for decades with little to show for it. Brexit has given the debate some new momentum. Britain will be out of the EU next March and the country is eager to find new trading partners. Many British lawmakers see the Commonwealth as a natural place to start. They argue that the common ties among the 53 member countries make it an ideal trading bloc. Indeed, some studies have shown that the commonalities among Commonwealth members − such as similar legal systems and the same language – mean that the costs of trading within the group are 19 per cent less than trading among non-member states.

Intra-commonwealth trade prospects

by 2020

The impact of global trade slowdown, 2010-20

in US$Billion

$1,200

US$1-trillion: projection with

proactive policy measures*

1,000

800

600

400

US$700-billion: estimated

intra-Commonwealth trade

200

0

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

*projection in 2015 Commonwealth

Trade Review

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES: COMMONWEALTH

SECRETARIAT ’S PROJECTION EXERCISE BASED ON WTO TRADE

GROWTH ESTIMATES; COMMONWEALTH TRADE REVIEW 2018

Intra-commonwealth trade prospects by 2020

The impact of global trade slowdown, 2010-20

in US$Billion

$1,200

US$1-trillion: projection with

proactive policy measures*

1,000

800

600

400

US$700-billion: estimated

intra-Commonwealth trade

200

0

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

*projection in 2015 Commonwealth Trade Review

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES: COMMONWEALTH SECRETARIAT ’S

PROJECTION EXERCISE BASED ON WTO TRADE GROWTH ESTIMATES;

COMMONWEALTH TRADE REVIEW 2018

Intra-commonwealth trade prospects by 2020

The impact of global trade slowdown, 2010-20, in US$Billion

$1,200

US$1-trillion: projection with

proactive policy measures*

1,000

800

600

400

US$700-billion: estimated

intra-Commonwealth trade

200

0

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

*projection in 2015 Commonwealth Trade Review

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES: COMMONWEALTH SECRETARIAT ’S PROJECTION EXERCISE BASED ON WTO

TRADE GROWTH ESTIMATES; COMMONWEALTH TRADE REVIEW 2018

Currently, intra-Commonwealth trade stands at around US$560-billion annually. That’s expected to rise to US$1-trillion by 2020 and could go higher if Brexit leads to more trade. Canada, too, should look toward the Commonwealth for greater trade diversity, especially if the United States pulls back from the North American free-trade Agreement, says Imran Abdool, an economics professor at the University of Windsor. He believes that in the next 10 years or so, Canada should increase its trade among its Commonwealth brethren. “If there is the political will, I think it’s something that could very well happen,” he said. “A lot of these countries, they are kind of becoming mistrustful of traditional trading partners. And I think there’s going to have to be a restart to international trade.”

World trade growth

7%

6

5

4

3

2

1

0

1980s

1990s

2000s

1980-2007

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

2021

Note: growth rates for 2017-21 are IMF projections

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES: IMF; WTO;

BREXIT AND COMMONWEALTH TRADE

World trade growth

7%

6

5

4

3

2

1

0

1980s

1990s

2000s

1980-2007

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

2021

Note: growth rates for 2017-21 are IMF projections

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES: IMF; WTO;

BREXIT AND COMMONWEALTH TRADE

World trade growth

7%

6

5

4

3

2

1

0

1980s

1990s

2000s

1980-2007

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

2021

Note: growth rates for 2017-21 are IMF projections

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES: IMF; WTO; BREXIT AND COMMONWEALTH TRADE

There is also a growing move toward free trade and free movement of people, among four key Commonwealth members: Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. “What we’re saying is that especially between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, there’s definitely no harm in having free trade and there’s certainly a great benefit,” said James Skinner, who heads the Vancouver-based CANZUK International. “Brexit is going to be a great opportunity for the U.K. to negotiate its own trade agreements. What we would like to see is for the United Kingdom to join the trade agreement that exists between Australia and New Zealand and also for Canada to join that as well. That’s not only for trade in goods, but also mutual recognition of skills such as doctors and architects, to work in each country.”

In another signal of the importance of the trade issues within the Commonwealth, India’s Prime Minister is attending the leaders’ summit for the first time in nine years. India has been lacklustre about the Commonwealth, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been keen to develop new trading relationships. There have also been suggestions that India could take on more of a leadership role within the organization.

Story continues below advertisement

Many others question the likelihood of the Commonwealth becoming an effective trading bloc, or even much of an alternative for Britain after Brexit. They point to the huge economic disparity among Commonwealth members, which range from dozens of tiny countries such as Nauru, with a population of about 13,000, to India with around 1.3 billion people. The far-flung nature of the association also makes trade difficult and the U.K.’s current trade with Commonwealth countries makes up about one-tenth of its total exports.

Canada has also shown little interest in boosting trade among its Commonwealth partners. In an interview last month, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said although Canada has historic ties to the Commonwealth, the government’s trade priorities lie elsewhere. “Our approach around expanding trading relationships has been to be focused on places where we have current and future opportunities,” he said, referring to the EU and China. “So we are thinking about the size of the economies that we’re trying to expand trade with.”

Growth in exports of goods and services

of selected Commonwealth countries, %

Percent change in volume of exports

of goods and services

Average 2013-16

Average 2017-20 (estimated)

Swaziland

Guyana

Nigeria

Grenada

CANADA

Malaysia

Sri Lanka

New Zealand

Tanzania

Papua New Guinea

Cyprus

Cameroon

Australia

Jamaica

Britain

Mozambique

Zambia

Bahamas

South Africa

Pakistan

Ghana

Botswana

Kenya

Singapore

Namibia

Rwanda

Bangladesh

Malawi

India

Uganda

-5%

0

5

10

15

20

15

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES: COMMONWEALTH

SECRETARIAT (CALCULATED FROM IMF WORLD ECONOMIC

OUTLOOK DATA OCTOBER 2017; COMMONWEALTH TRADE

REVIEW 2018

Growth in exports of goods and services

of selected Commonwealth countries, %

Percent change in volume of exports of goods and services

Average 2013-16

Average 2017-20 (estimated)

Swaziland

Guyana

Nigeria

Grenada

CANADA

Malaysia

Sri Lanka

New Zealand

Tanzania

Papua New Guinea

Cyprus

Cameroon

Australia

Jamaica

Britain

Mozambique

Zambia

Bahamas

South Africa

Pakistan

Ghana

Botswana

Kenya

Singapore

Namibia

Rwanda

Bangladesh

Malawi

India

Uganda

-5%

0

5

10

15

20

15

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES: COMMONWEALTH SECRETARIAT

(CALCULATED FROM IMF WORLD ECONOMIC OUTLOOK DATA

OCTOBER 2017; COMMONWEALTH TRADE REVIEW 2018

Growth in exports of goods and services of selected Commonwealth

countries, %

Percent change in volume of exports of goods and services

Average 2017-20 (estimated)

Average 2013-16

Swaziland

Guyana

Nigeria

Grenada

CANADA

Malaysia

Sri Lanka

New Zealand

Tanzania

Papua New Guinea

Cyprus

Cameroon

Australia

Jamaica

Britain

Mozambique

Zambia

Bahamas

South Africa

Pakistan

Ghana

Botswana

Kenya

Singapore

Namibia

Rwanda

Bangladesh

Malawi

India

Uganda

-5%

0

5

10

15

20

15

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES: COMMONWEALTH SECRETARIAT (CALCULATED FROM IMF WORLD

ECONOMIC OUTLOOK DATA OCTOBER 2017; COMMONWEALTH TRADE REVIEW 2018

Human rights

The Commonwealth likes to pride itself on its charter of values, which stresses democracy, human rights and gender equality. But the organization is voluntary and works on the basis of consensus, which rules out taking a stand on many issues. LGBT rights have been a particular sore point and last week the Commonwealth secretariat received a petition signed by 104,000 people calling on the organization to push for LBGT rights rights in 37 member countries where same-sex relationships are criminal offences and, in some cases, punishable by death. Leaders have opted not to discuss the issue during this summit, but that isn’t likely to stop protesters who have already been gathering in London.

British diver Tom Daley joined the call to action last week during the Commonwealth Games in Australia. After winning a gold medal in the 10-metre synchronized dive, he lashed out at member countries that deny gay rights. “There are 37 countries in the Commonwealth where it is illegal to be who I am. And hopefully we can reduce that number,” Mr. Daley said. “You want to feel comfortable in who you are when you are standing on that diving board and for 37 Commonwealth countries that are here participating that is not the case.”

The Commonwealth is also facing calls to take action against Cameroon over violence and human-rights abuses in that country’s English-speaking region. The Cameroon government has faced international condemnation for its heavy-handed tactics in putting down protests. President Paul Biya will be at the summit and he could come under pressure from other leaders.

Some politicians in Britain also want the British government to apologize during the meeting for the many wrongs the country has committed against its former colonies over the decades, including not joining the Commonwealth in sanctions against South Africa during the apartheid era. “This week would be an appropriate moment to correct that historic mistake, and would send a wider signal to our Commonwealth cousins that we in the U.K. truly recognize that the days are gone when our union was described – in colonial terms – as the ’British Commonwealth,’” British member of Parliament Emily Thornberry said.

Story continues below advertisement

There are some encouraging signs for the Commonwealth. Gambia has rejoined the association after the democratic election of President Adama Barrow last year, which ended 22 years of iron-fisted rule by Yahya Jammeh. He pulled the country out of the organization in 2013.

There’s also talk of Zimbabwe rejoining, too, now that Emmerson Mnangagwa has replaced Robert Mugabe, who had ruled the country since 1980. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002,s and Mr. Mugabe later withdrew its membership.

Leadership

The Queen was named head of the Commonwealth at her coronation in 1953, taking over the title from her father, King George VI. But the ceremonial role is not hereditary and it’s up to Commonwealth leaders to decide who will replace her. That’s become a critical issue since it’s unlikely the Queen will be able to attend another leaders’ summit, given that she no longer travels outside Britain.

It is widely expected that Prince Charles will take over as head of the Commonwealth when, as expected, he becomes King, but the leaders could opt for a non-royal to better reflect member countries. Of the 53 Commonwealth members, only 16 have the British monarch as their head of state.

Kate Osamor, a British MP, has urged Commonwealth leaders to select someone other than Prince Charles. Ms. Osamor said someone more “level-headed” who “thinks outside the box” would be a better choice. “I just don’t think it should be him [Prince Charles]. I don’t really know what he’s been up to of late. He’s not been that vocal on issues,” she added.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
We have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We expect to have our new commenting system, powered by Talk from the Coral Project, running on our site by the end of April, 2018. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.