05 Apr

'UK looks to former colonies to secure post-Brexit future' Jamie Smith, Financial Times

More than 6,500 athletes and officials gathered in Australia’s Gold Coast for the opening of the Commonwealth Games on Wednesday.

For Brexit Britain, however, boosting trade with former colonies is as important as winning medals now that it is preparing to leave the EU.

“This is a huge opportunity for the UK in the post-Brexit world to really help turbocharge the Commonwealth into being a vibrant group of countries,” said Jonathan Marland, a former Conservative party treasurer who is chairing a trade delegation at the games.  “We all speak English, there is fundamental rule of law that underpins our activities and a number of the major countries — Australia, Singapore, Canada and the UK — are free-trading. So there is the basis of what I think could be a Commonwealth trade framework,” he said. 

The games mark the start of a critical month for the Commonwealth, a group of 53 nations that are mostly former British territories. Political leaders from member nations will gather in London for the 25th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in mid-April. An accompanying forum, hosted by Lord Marland, will explore how to deepen business and trade links — a key aim of many Brexit supporters, who pinpoint the Commonwealth as a potential trading bloc and a vehicle to promote “Global Britain” — a foreign policy aim of the government. 

But critics contend that Britain’s pivot towards the Commonwealth is misplaced, as the country does far more trade with the EU. About £234bn ($330bn) — corresponding to 42 per cent of UK exports — goes to the EU, nearly six times the value of UK exports to the 10 Commonwealth countries for which trade data are tracked by the Office for National Statistics. 

“The whole idea of reconstituting the Commonwealth via trade is spurious and harks back to a rather imagined past on the part of the Brexiters, who are looking for any saviour in any form,” said Jason Langrish, executive director of the Canada Europe Roundtable for Business, who worked on the recent Canada-EU trade deal.  “Trade deals with Canada, Australia and New Zealand may have legs, but they certainly won’t compensate for a potential loss of membership in the [European] single market,” he said. 

But supporters of Brexit, including British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, talk up the potential of the Commonwealth and its 53 members, which have a combined population of 2.4bn, a third of humanity.

“Since Britain decided to join what became the European Union in 1972, the EU has recorded average annual economic growth of just over 2 per cent,” wrote Mr Johnson in an article last month. “Yet, over the same period, the Commonwealth’s economies have expanded twice as fast — by an average of 4.4 per cent every year.” 

The 25 UK companies on the trade mission see opportunities in the Commonwealth. 

“Many Commonwealth countries are experiencing double-digit growth — this isn’t occurring in Europe but in Asia,” said Leanne Kemp, founder of Everledger, a UK-based technology company taking part in the trade mission at the games.  She said a common language, similar legal systems and strong ethical standards in Commonwealth nations have encouraged Everledger to set up offices in the UK, India, Singapore and Australia.  But trade experts warn the Commonwealth is not a cohesive bloc. Many member nations retain high levels of protection and the UK lacks the resources to clinch multiple trade deals over a short time. 

“The Commonwealth can never be a post-Brexit free trade solution as the levels of protection and degrees of openness are very different between members,” said Geoff Raby, head of trade policy at Policy Exchange, a UK think-tank. 

Experts cite the example of India, which has failed to agree free trade deals with either Canada or Australia, despite years of negotiations. Mr Raby said the UK should join the Trans-Pacific Partnership — an 11 country trade agreement that includes Japan, Canada, Australia and several other Pacific countries. 

But for now London’s post-Brexit intentions remain as unclear as its likely medal tally at the games — a source of frustration for advocates of closer Commonwealth ties. 

“Few things get done in the Commonwealth unless the UK says ‘let’s do it’ and currently the UK government is not equipped to take advantage of this opportunity,” said Lord Marland, who bemoaned a lack of concrete proposals ahead of this month’s Commonwealth business forum and leaders’ meeting in London.  “I think they are paralysed by Brexit. All the government’s thinking is on Brexit and what the terms are. It’s not surprising but there is very little thinking going on about where strategically do we want to be post-Brexit.”

Additional reporting by Valentina Romei

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