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Commonwealth Free Trade: a British straw man?

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A Commonwealth Free Trade Area (FTA) would go down in India ‘like a lead balloon’.

That’s the opinion of Indian Member of Parliament, Shashi Tharoor, as British Ministers and empire-dreamers run around Britain trying to promote the idea that a Commonwealth FTA is a viable alternative to trade with the European Union (EU), which Britain has elected to exit.

A harsher view is expressed by columnist with the British Guardian newspaper, Kehinde Andrews, who writes: “Rather than accept reality the (British) government has deluded itself into thinking that Britain can just install an update for empire and return to former glories on the world stage. But outside the EU and devoid of colonies, Britain will find that any nostalgic visions of empire are a mirage, providing nothing to sustain it”.

The British advocates of the Commonwealth FTA do not help their own desperate scramble for a Commonwealth FTA by describing it as “Empire 2.0”. The phrase lacks any semblance of sensitivity to the dark history of Britain’s imperial rule over Commonwealth countries – a rule that not only raped their resources to make Britain rich, but also exploited and brutalized their native peoples.

Shashi Tharoor, who is a former Indian Minister of State, recalls that: “There’s no real awareness of the atrocities, of the fact that Britain financed its Industrial Revolution and its prosperity from the depredations of empire, the fact that Britain came to one of the richest countries in the world (India) in the 18th century and reduced it, after two centuries of plunder, to one of the poorest.”

Kehinde Andrews, speaking of the African experience, says “Nations no longer ruled by force and fear will not supplicate themselves to Britain because of misty memories of empire”. And, he adds, “In order to build a prosperous future Britain needs to understand its place in the world; a small island desperately reaching out to countries it formerly ruled in order to try to maintain its relevance. No doubt the former colonies will be willing to trade with Britain. But the idea that these relations will represent anything like those in empire is laughable hubris.” 

Even as British government ministers are beating the drum of a new Commonwealth Empire for trade, Britain is threatened to become smaller than it is, as the leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, declares that she will seek a second referendum to make Scotland an independent nation.  When the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, indicated that she might block a second referendum, the debate became nasty, with Sturgeon asserting that she “was elected” as First Minister of Scotland “on a clear commitment manifesto,” while May “is not elected by anyone.” 

The frenzied effort in Britain to talk-up the Commonwealth as a FTA is an illusionary attempt to allay fears that Britain will have what is described as a ‘hard BREXIT’ and, therefore, will be left without favourable terms of trade in the EU or any other market.  The Commonwealth is being touted as the replacement for EU trade.

But the reality is that the Commonwealth cannot replace the EU for Britain, which sells far more goods and services to the 27 members of the EU than it does to the 51 nations of the Commonwealth.  In 2015, 44 per cent of total UK exports of goods and services went to the EU; conversely just 9.5 per cent went to the Commonwealth.

As for the other members of the Common­wealth, particularly its smaller members in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, there would be no benefit in a Common­wealth FTA.  Six Common­wealth countries dominate exports to other Commonwealth coun­tries.  They are: Singapore 26 per cent, India 20.37 per cent, Malaysia 26.14 per cent, Australia 10.9 per cent, Britain 9.5 per cent and Canada 6.7 per cent. The other 45 countries between them account for the remaining 16 per cent and they include big countries like Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya in Africa, and Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in Asia.  The small countries of the Caribbean and the Pacific account for less than five per cent of all Commonwealth exports.

The Commonwealth ceased being a trading bloc when Britain opted to join the EU in 1973.  Over the four decades since then, Commonwealth countries have developed trade links with other nations and regions that are now vital to them.  Australia’s biggest trading partner, for instance, is China, followed by the US and Japan; Canada’s are the United States and Mexico. For the majority of Caribbean countries, the US is their biggest trading partner. None of these countries will unravel these vital trading links for the benefit of Britain. 

Sure, Caribbean countries would want to maintain their level of exports to Britain, but those exports are small in relation to their imports from the UK.  In this connection, a FTA with Britain would hardly suit the Caribbean. Some compensatory mechanism would be necessary, and that means an aid and investment component that Britain (if it is Britain and not England and Wales) might not be able to deliver, given the demands on its resources in a post-Brexit world.

The Commonwealth has stayed away from trade matters ever since Britain joined the EU. In fact, the British never wanted a Commonwealth trade ministers meeting because it was felt that Common­wealth demands would interfere with its common purpose with the EU, and with the big power alliances that the EU had formed with, for instance, the US over subsidized agriculture, which disadvantaged African and Asian agricultural exports on the world market.  When a former Secretary-General, Don McKinnon, tried to organize a working lunch of Commonwealth Trade Ministers in Mexico in 2003 in the margins of a World Trade Organization Ministerial meeting, few Commonwealth trade ministers turned-up.  That included the British trade minister.

The Commonwealth has the capacity to be many things, among them: a forum for showing the world how religious and ethnic tolerance could be achieved; for bridging divides between developed and developing nations to help construct pathways to a prosperous and peaceful world; for championing global causes such as Climate Change; and for advancing the development interests of the majority of its states which are small and vulnerable.   But, a trade bloc it is not, and never will be, however much it is the straw man that British Brexiteers are conjuring.

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States.  He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto.  The views expressed are his own)

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