There is a current upsurge of public, press and policy interest in the Commonwealth, which has followed in the wake of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and is set to continue and gather momentum into next year. In April 2018, London will host the Commonwealth Summit, a gathering of the 52 heads of Commonwealth governments. The summit launches the UK’s two-year Chair in Office of this voluntary association of countries, which spans the five regions of Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Pacific, and encompasses about one third of the world’s population.
In recent years this unique network has not enjoyed a significant profile outside the “Commonwealth family”, a term used to describe those organisations that work to promote the Commonwealth, of which the Royal Commonwealth Society is a key player. But rather the Commonwealth has felt at times like a dormant giant that could create real excitement if its full potential as an egalitarian network based on shared history and values could be awakened.
The Commonwealth has always been popular with the UK’s “Brexiteers”, the proponents of Brexit, who see it as a fresh way of going global following the Brexit vote. But the Commonwealth is not and never has been an alternative to the EU. Its historic links of language, common law, parliamentary structures and culture capture all imaginations, so that “Remainers” also appear in the ranks of supporters of this unique network. In an increasingly divided Britain, the Commonwealth represents a rare opportunity for the UK government to find a consensus on foreign policy.
One of the further consequences of Brexit is that Commonwealth countries, particularly the developing nations, will lose a significant voice within the European Union following the UK’s exit. The UK has always acted as a conduit for the interests of Commonwealth countries in the EU, in particular in relation to so-called ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) countries, which enjoy preferential trade access to the EU market in part thanks to the UK’s efforts. Cyprus and Malta, the remaining countries with membership of both organisations, will carry forward more of this role but as smaller countries they will struggle in their capacity to do so. Other countries, such as France, Germany and the Nordic states are already being engaged by Commonwealth ministers and diplomats to assist in engaging with the EU institutions.
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For the UK’s contribution to the shaping of this association of nations to be deemed a success, it will have to deliver beyond the inevitable glamour of the summit, where Queen Elizabeth, as Head of the Commonwealth, will host some 52 heads of government at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. Instead the UK will have to ensure delivery of tangible outcomes over its full two years as Chair in Office, until handing over the Commonwealth baton to Malaysia in 2020. The summit theme of “Towards a Common Future” will focus on enhancing the lives of Commonwealth citizens by looking at issues of central importance to all Commonwealth countries: trade, security, climate change, governance and democracy. There will be a particular emphasis on young people who represent a significant two thirds of the population of this network. The summit will also be an excellent opportunity for the small island developing states, representing nearly half of the Commonwealth membership, to engage with the G20 countries of Canada, UK, India and Australia at the highest level.
Not only will there be a gathering of Commonwealth Heads of Government in April 2018 but also a gathering of civil society, in the form of the People’s, Women’s, Youth and Business Forums, reflecting the fact that the Commonwealth is about a dynamic network of communities as well as governments. As the oldest civil society in the Commonwealth the Royal Commonwealth Society, which next year will be celebrating 150 years, will play a leading role not only at the time of the summit but in the lead-up, in organising the Westminster Abbey service for Commonwealth Day in March, the largest UK multi-faith service in the presence of Queen Elizabeth.
There are already signs that the UK is stepping up to the challenge of maximising the opportunities of the Commonwealth for all its member countries in preparing for the summit. A top team has been assembled from foreign office appointees in the form of the Commonwealth Summit Unit at the Cabinet Office reporting to the prime minister and a Commonwealth desk established at the newly formed Department of International Trade. As long as the UK is not held back by historical sensitivities and shows continued leadership then it is not an exaggeration to assert that both the summit and the subsequent two years have the potential to be a historic turning point for the UK’s international relations as well as for the Commonwealth network itself.
Dr Annette Prandzioch is chief operating officer of the Royal Commonwealth Society