What now for the Commonwealth?

The group of 53 mostly former colonies of the British Empire is striving to find a new role and relevance now

Madrid: It’s a club that covers the world, represents some 2.4 billion people, caters to nations as vast as Canada, as populous as India and as remote as Micronesian islands. And it has the former British Empire as its common roots — now, as the representatives of the 53 governments meet in London for the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), it’s an organisation that is trying to forge a new future, select a new leader and work on its relationship with Britain as London tries to negotiate a post-Brexit role on the global stage.

Theresa May, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, is looking to win the support of the Commonwealth, a network of mostly former British colonies, for future trade and bolster her argument that the future is bright after Britain leaves the European Union next March.

The Commonwealth, headed by Queen Elizabeth, is not a formal trading bloc with a free-trade agreement and, in 2015, it accounted for only 9 per cent of British exports while, by contrast, the EU, which Britain voted to leave in 2016, accounted for around 44 per cent.

“Culturally, the Commonwealth remains something which Britain retains some connections with, such as with the Commonwealth Games,” Dr Philip Catney, a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Keele University told Gulf News. “Migration is still strong to certain Commonwealth countries too. Politically, it is less clear how important it is. It is not a significant actor on the world stage and the Commonwealth as an organisation is very small.”

For May, however, CHOGM offers an opportunity for more trade post Brexit.

“Our Commonwealth family already accounts for one-fifth of global trade,” May said in a statement before the meeting. “And we must continue to work together to build further upon this solid foundation by building on our existing trade links and establishing new ones.”

It’s a point echoed by Dr Catney.

“The Commonwealth does not appear to be dying,” he told Gulf News. “It will probably continue as it has done for the foreseeable future. Some Conservatives and Brexiteers have seen the wider ‘Anglosphere’ as a potential trade route, which is not a new idea — schemes were discussed, attempted during the 1930s to set-up favourable trading ties — but are not likely to offset the potential loss of European markets in the case of a weak trade deal with the EU.”

Commonwealth leaders will also decide this week on who takes over from the Queen as head of the organisation. At 91, the monarch is eager for someone else to take on the role, and she favours that person being her direct hear, Prince Charles. He is heir to the throne in 16 of the 53 Commonwealth member states.

“There will certainly be a question over its figurehead,” Dr Catney told Gulf News. “Prince Charles is certainly keen to keep the organisation alive and is keen to assume the role upon the Queen’s death. Whether Commonwealth leaders are happy with this is another matter.”

May will unveil new programmes to free up trade, improve the skills of young people and boost women’s participation in business, including an offer of £7 million (Dh$36.7 million) in Commonwealth-wide support to boost women-owned businesses in countries where being female is a professional barrier.

In a sign of increasing importance of the network of countries, May will also announce funding for a new Commonwealth Standards Network to establish a common language for goods and services to help boost trade.

— With inputs from agencies

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