Britain’s hosting of this week’s Commonwealth summit was overshadowed Monday by a scandal involving longtime Caribbean immigrants threatened with deportation, distracting from an agenda of increased trade that London hoped to promote ahead of Brexit.
After initially turning them down, Prime Minister Theresa May is set to meet counterparts from a dozen Caribbean states on the margins of the gathering on Tuesday, amid growing anger over the treatment of the so-called "Windrush" generation.
The scandal unfolded as 53 member states began gathering in London for their biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
Born out of the former British Empire, the voluntary organisation, covering a third of the world’s population, typically focuses on development and democracy, but is placing greater attention on boosting trade.
The summit proper takes place on Thursday and Friday, following three days of forums and events.
Britain hopes to use the week to promote its post-Brexit trade agenda as it prepares to quit the European Union next March.
“We have the opportunity to re-invigorate our Commonwealth partnerships and usher in a new era,” Liam Fox, Britain’s trade minister, told attendees at a summit event Monday.
He argued for “harnessing the movement of expertise, talent, goods and capital between our nations in a way that we have not for a generation or more”.
London is going for the hard sell, hosting a reception aimed at showcasing British exports, from food and drink to the English Premier League football trophy.
It has pounced on the organisation’s analysis showing the advantages of trade between Commonwealth countries because of their common language and legal systems.
Intra-Commonwealth trade is expected to increase by at least 17 per cent to about US$700 billion (Dh2.57 trillion) by 2020, according to the 2018 Commonwealth Trade Review.
But overall, the Commonwealth accounts for just a tenth of Britain’s trade, compared to the EU, which accounts for nearly half.
In terms of goods and services trade in 2016, Britain did more business with 15 countries – nine of them in the EU – before its biggest Commonwealth trade partners Canada and India.
Queen Elizabeth II, the head of the Commonwealth, is hosting a dinner for the leaders on Thursday at Buckingham Palace in London.
On Friday, they will gather in private at Windsor Castle, to the west of the capital.
She has newly appointed her grandson Prince Harry, 33, as her Commonwealth youth ambassador.
He opened Monday’s sessions by telling youth leaders he hoped to get them working together to ensure “maximum impact” in finding solutions to global problems.
To cheers, Harry said the American actress Meghan Markle, whom he is due to wed on May 19, was “hugely excited” to be joining him in his new task.
Given its highly diverse membership, if agreements can be struck within the Commonwealth, they can likely achieve wider support.
At the last Commonwealth summit in Malta in November 2015, leaders struck a deal on climate change that helped pave the way for the Paris agreement days afterwards.
This time, the group are hoping to agree an ocean-governance charter, a connectivity agenda for trade and investment, and a declaration on tackling cybercrime.