Is the Commonwealth Britain’s alternative to the EU?

States belonging to the Commonwealth
From microstates in Polynesia to members of the G8, the Commonwealth straddles north and south, east and west, linking nations and people throughout the globe (source: macpixxel for GIS)

As the United Kingdom edges closer to its in-out referendum on membership of the European Union, some of those who are supporting Brexit point to the Commonwealth as a happier and better place for Britain to be.

This binary approach, which encourages the mistaken assumption that it must be one or the other, is based on a false dichotomy. Although some members of the United Kingdom Independence Party and some Euroskeptics see the Commonwealth as a bolt-hole offering Britain an alternative free-trade area to the European Union, this is a flight of fantasy. However, they have a point when they argue for a ratcheting up of the Commonwealth’s trade links to complement the emphasis which it places on shared values.

Just as Britain often stands accused of not understanding or being only a lackluster supporter of many of Europe’s high principles, its European neighbors are often woefully ignorant of the richness of Britain’s associations with the Commonwealth. And the European Union might learn a thing or two from the Commonwealth and the relationship of its member nations.

Unique organization

In 1979, as a young new member of Parliament, one of the first things I did was to join the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) and I have been a member ever since. Worldwide, the CPA has 16,000 members. A year or so later I was invited to become chairman of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth.

I have traveled in many Commonwealth countries. The former Australian Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Sir Don McKinnon, was right when he told me that “the Commonwealth is a pretty good investment for Britain but it has not always used it best.”

Sir Donald perceived the Commonwealth as a unique organization seeking to entrench a genuine culture of democracy and interdependence in an increasingly fragmented, dangerous and intolerant world.

Although the organization has a fascinating past, it is not a museum. When we “use it best” it can be a model that could offer the world a more hopeful future. For 64 years Queen Elizabeth has been its titular head and, however that role evolves, Her Majesty’s passing one day will not signal the end of the Commonwealth. It may, however, be a moment for introspection, a questioning of how its future should be determined.

That future is shaped biannually, when the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meet. The meeting’s agenda usually contains a wide range of global issues and, regardless of their population or economic clout, all members have an equal say. This ensures that even the smallest member countries have a voice in shaping the Commonwealth.


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