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Opportunities and challenges facing the modern Commonwealth in its 70th year

Published Tuesday, March 5, 2019

A debate on ‘Opportunities and challenges facing the modern Commonwealth in its 70th year’ has been scheduled for Thursday 7 March 2019 in the Main Chamber. The debate has been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee after a representation from James Duddridge MP and David Hanson MP from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

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Outcome of the 2018 CHOGM

The 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting took place in London in 2018, after Cyclone Pam spoiled plans to hold it in Vanuatu. Its themes were:

  • environmental sustainability – climate change and pollution, particularly of the oceans
  • fairness – democracy, good governance and human rights
  • security – organised crime, cyber security, violent extremism
  • prosperity – trade, investment and jobs.

A headline announcement at the beginning of the summit was that the UK would ban plastic drinking straws, plastic-stemmed cotton buds and drink stirrers.

Among other commitments in the 12-page communiqué issued at the end of the meeting, they agreed to on the need for democratic, accountable institutions and access to justice for all, and to encourage trade among members.

In March 2018, Lord Anderson of Swansea, a former chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, talked of: “the need to distinguish between the Commonwealth of declaration and the Commonwealth of reality”.

The Commonwealth Secretariat published an annual results report for 2016/17.

India

Perhaps the most significant outcome of the 2018 meeting was the decision of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend, after years of non-attendance by Indian prime ministers.. The Director of the Royal Commonwealth Society said last year:

As India cements its status as an economic superpower, it is increasingly apparent that they are starting to see the enormous potential of the Commonwealth as a ready-made soft power network.

An Indian official put a slightly different slant on it: "The Commonwealth is useful to us because it gives us a chance to talk to fellow Asian countries without China being in the room."

Professor Harsh V. Pant agreed that the UK was not the only country looking for new and stronger international role:

As a rising power, India too is looking at those avenues where its status as an emerging power is recognised during this period of unprecedented global structural changes and shifts in balance-of-power equations. The Commonwealth of Nations (or simply, ‘Commonwealth’) provides India with a platform to engage with a wide array of states across the world with similar political cultures. As India grows to a US$10-trillion economy by 2030, it needs its own arenas and platforms, especially ones where China is not a member. Modi’s renewed look at the Commonwealth may well be an indication that New Delhi is eyeing the organisation as a prospective forum for its power projection. To actualise this, however, New Delhi will have to invest diplomatic capital to remould the platform according to its own strategic needs. Modi’s London visit, in this context, could be considered as a step in that direction.

As the Commonwealth’s largest economy (or very soon to be), India may be re-imagining the Commonwealth with itself as the most important member; this could provide some significant opportunities for the Commonwealth as an organisation.

Trade

With the present focus in the UK on trade, there is a focus on the possible trade opportunities that the Commonwealth might present. At present the Commonwealth accounts for 9.1% of UK exports in 2017 – roughly the same as UK exports to Germany.

Free trade deals between Commonwealth countries is the most likely way promote intra-Commonwealth trade and after Brexit the UK would be free to conclude such deals. The debate on how easily that could be achieved is continuing. Regular meetings between Commonwealth trade ministers were inaugurated in March 2017.

The Commonwealth does not have a strong role on trade at present, according to a senior Australian diplomat, having “no capacity on trade. We see it as a useful adjunct to our engagement with small island nations but give it no priority.”

Resources

A significant question for the future of the Commonwealth is how much money it has to spend. One research article from 2003 says:

When the UN spends 0.23 euro per year and per inhabitant with its various programmes, and the Francophonie spends 0.3 euro per year and per inhabitant, the Commonwealth can only spend 0.03 euro per year and per inhabitant, 10 times less.

 

Further information

Representation from James Duddridge MP and David Hanson MP to the Backbench Business Committee weekly meeting, Tuesday 26 Feb 2019

Commons Debate packs CDP-2019-0059

Authors: Timothy Robinson; Nigel Walker; Ben Smith

Topics: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, International organisations

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