It was less than a year ago that Theresa May was dancing her way across Africa, stopping off in three Commonwealth countries – South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria – on her first visit to sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition to trying to prove stereotypes about how Brits can’t dance, the Prime Minister was there to present a message of the new post-Brexit Global Britain and foster partnerships with Commonwealth countries. To emphasise the importance of the new relationship the UK was looking to forge, May took senior ministers and a significant trade delegation.
Yet the reality is that the Commonwealth is not a viable replacement for the EU. In terms of the UK’s trade it currently accounts for about one sixth of the volume that the EU does. And there is neither the capacity nor the desire for it to be turned into a significant trading bloc.
“The Commonwealth is extremely vague at this time. There’s no set of proposals that anyone can agree with,” is how the body was described by Rob Davies, South Africa’s minister of trade and industry. “The Commonwealth has not played a role in international trade for many years,” he added.
Though Davies admits there have been moves made by the UK to begin discussions, he dismisses the idea that the Commonwealth could suddenly become a serious trading entity.
“We understand the UK wants to come to us (as the Commonwealth), in the fullness of time, to present some post-Brexit bigger, deeper agreement that they would want to negotiate with us,” he says. “We would meet them after three years or something, assess the situation and take stock.”
Being put on the backburner like this doesn’t sound like the Global Britain promised by the Breexiteers, where the UK rids itself of the shackles of Europe and spreads its wings to seek global markets across the oceans.
Unsurprisingly, many of the leading Brexit voices – from Liam Fox to Boris Johnson, David Davis, Dominic Raab, particularly Jacob Rees-Mogg – have trumpeted the Commonwealth in a way that carries a certain nostalgia for the days of Empire. Presumably they believe the rest of the Commonwealth is looking back through the same rose-tinted glasses and would cherish closer ties with the UK.
“We’re not looking at recreating British Empire. We’re not looking back with any fondness,” asserts Davies. “We’re very clear: empire in any shape or form is not what we want.”
Added to that, in the Commonwealth, signing a trade deal with the UK can actually be far from a priority.
“Our fundamental focus in on the regional integration processes on the African continent,” says Davies, when asked about South African trade priorities. “So our priority, without any doubt, is on the processes leading up to the creation of the African continental free trade area. That’s our fundamental focus, we look at everything in that context.”
Indeed, Africa’s main priority is – get this – a continent-wide free trade agreement. Last week, Gambia became the 22nd country to ratify the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCFTA). The agreement will eliminate tariffs on 90 per cent of goods on the continent, and could launch as early as July this year.
And as the Brexit clock ticks down, rather than flourishing into a stronger trading partner, the UK is in danger of losing the trading relationships it already has with South Africa and the rest of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The SADC-EU Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) is one of more than 30 trade agreement the EU has with external countries, but which the UK has not yet managed to rollover for itself post-Brexit.
After nearly three years of negotiations between the UK and South Africa, this time as part of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), there is still no agreement to continue the current trading relationship. There are still outstanding issues including import tariffs, agricultural standards, and sanitary certificates. South Africa is still waiting for a signed letter from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) about the renewal condition of certificates, said Davies.
Other countries have their own issues to consider, and soothing British trade woes is rarely a priority. South Africa itself is currently in the run up to elections this May.
If a Brexit deal is agreed with the EU then the current EPA will still be in effect in Britain, but only until the end of the Withdrawal Agreement in 2021. Given the little progress made to get to this point, it seems all but impossible for any Commonwealth trade deal to be signed in that time.
This is just one country’s difficulties in expanding its trading agreement with the UK: the Commonwealth contains countless others. India’s high commissioner, Yashvardhan Sinha, stated last year that the country was in no rush to start trade negotiations with Britain. He also raised concerns about the UK’s perception of India being based on pre-independence nostalgia, and asserted that a top priority for India in any UK trade agreement would be easing the current visa restrictions on its citizens, particularly on students.
So, two of the big stumbling blocks for closer Commonwealth trade appear to be countries prioritising their own continental free-trade blocks, and an unwillingness to sign deals without greater free movement of people. There’s an irony here somewhere.
Joe Walsh is a journalist based in Johannesburg.