There are just over two months till Britain has its remaining ties with the European Union severed. As the world enters 2021, the UK will leave the post-Brexit implementation period and, unless a new treaty is signed before then, will be treated by the EU like every other non-member nation.
It has been hard to give Brexit the full attention it deserves while the COVID-19 pandemic still wreaks havoc on the world, but that withdrawal deadline hasn’t changed. Britain will emerge in the new year into what will be a very different world from that which saw the referendum in 2016. We will be in the midst of the greatest economic depression since the early 20th Century, practically starting afresh.
While it is an immense challenge for the country, it is also the chance for bold and innovative solutions to help recover. Britain will continue to remain friends with its European partners, maintaining the cooperation with our neighbours that existed long before the EU came into being and will continue to exist for many centuries to come. But without the integrating ties, the UK will also be able to forge new and independent partnerships with some of the world’s most exciting nations and the natural template for that lies in the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth of Nations is precisely that, a free association of independent countries with shared values and purpose. The 54 member nations have all committed to the Commonwealth Charter, agreeing to defend principles such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Most have historical ties to Britain, some do not. But all share a vision of taking their place in a transforming world.
Member nations vary significantly, with the largest being India with a population of 1.3 billion down to the smallest in Tuvalu with their population of under 10,000. But both India and Tuvalu take equal seats at the Commonwealth table, a key principle of the group.
Britain’s bonds with the Commonwealth go far beyond geographical proximity. Most member states share similar legal systems based on common law, they also tend to have similar structures of parliamentary democracy, and English is a common language of business in almost all.
The result is something called the ‘Commonwealth Advantage’. This means that Commonwealth countries trade more with each other, and generate 10 per cent more investment than with non-member states. This prepackaged advantage will give Britain a great head start in streamlining trade as part of the worldwide recovery.
There has been a recent push for the adoption of ‘CANZUK’ where the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia would make agreements on liberalised movement and free trade between them. While this is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t go far enough. Our relationships go further than these countries, and should also involve our allies and partners in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.
The Commonwealth is so much more than Britain and ‘CANZUK’. The largest member is India, the Commonwealth’s ‘engine room.’ It sends almost 20 per cent of its exports to Commonwealth member states, with 15 per cent of its imports coming back the same way. This will be worth more than £230 billion by 2030. Indian companies employ more than 110,000 people in the UK, with their combined revenue growing by almost 90 per cent in the last five years. Just last month, a delegation from the Confederation of Indian Industry visited London beating the drum for the British Government to take full advantage of greater Commonwealth trade.
The building blocks are there as some Commonwealth countries already rely heavily on the UK market. Seven nations in the Commonwealth send over 10 per cent of their world exports to the UK, while 24 countries send more than 30 percent of their total European exports to the UK. No one in the EU imports more sugar than Britain, which also buys 80 per cent of Kenya’s vegetable exports and almost all of Canada’s gold and precious metal exports.
For now much of that trade comes from Commonwealth states that are some of the world’s least developed countries and Sub-Saharan African nations. While the revenues from those countries are not huge, this will change. The Commonwealth’s 2.4 billion residents makes up more than 30 per cent of the world’s population, with 60 per cent of them under the age of 30. As the demographics of the planet shift, and powerful economies continue to emerge from the developing world, the Commonwealth will be its hub. Britain must be a part of that, helping those nations realise their potential.
We have started to see positive steps in the Government starting to take Commonwealth trade more seriously in the post-Brexit world. In September, a new Board of Trade was formed. Advising it were people who are deeply connected to the Commonwealth, from Tony Abbott the former Prime Minister of Australia, to Dr Linda Yueh, the Chair of the Royal Commonwealth Society.
More must obviously be done. The British Government should focus on bringing down the bureaucratic barriers and red tape that prevent growing Commonwealth countries from wanting to do more trade with the UK. As we come out of the COVID-19 crisis, our focus should be on helping our Commonwealth partners across the world recover with us, or come January we may find ourselves alone.