David Cameron drew criticism two weeks ago for missing a crucial European Council meeting in Malta on the refugee crisis and rushing back to meet India’s Nahendra Modi in London instead. So this weekend, as heads of government once again descended on the Mediterranean island for the Commonwealth summit, many in Brussels will no doubt have noted that this time Cameron was in full attendance. This highlights one the biggest issues underlying the current Brexit debate: Europe versus the Commonwealth. So should the UK quit the EU and embrace the Commonwealth, as the eurosceptics claim? The answer is a resounding no.
This question is by no means new. When the UK first joined the European Economic Community in 1973, many were concerned it was turning its back on its longstanding allies in the Commonwealth. One of the key concessions brought back from Brussels by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the subsequent referendum was better market access for dairy farmers from New Zealand. Then, as now, the argument is more emotional than rational. But the changing economic context has given those calling for Brexit more credibility. Back in the 1970s, the UK was the sick man of Europe while economies on the continent were thriving. Now, as British Conservative eurosceptics such as Daniel Hannan argue, perhaps it is time for the UK to embrace fast-growing emerging economies in the Commonwealth at the expense of the EU.
This argument deliberately plays to those who yearn back to the days of Empire. But the problem for British eurosceptics is that their nostalgic vision does not seem to be shared by the UK’s Commonwealth allies themselves. When Mr Modi recently met with David Cameron he stressed that Britain is an important “entry point into the EU”, a clear sign that India would prefer to see the UK firmly anchored in Europe. In a strongly-worded submission into an official British government review in 2013, Australia also stated that it highly values the UK’s role as an active and influential EU member. And just this week Sir Ronald Sanders, a senior Jamaican diplomat and candidate to become the next Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, argued that there is no need for the UK to choose between the two organisations. He stressed that it is perfectly possible for the UK to increase trade with Commonwealth countries without having to leave the EU. All these countries have one thing in common, they would much rather see the UK at the heart of the EU shaping its approach. Especially for small, developing countries that are significantly affected by EU policies in areas such as development aid, farming subsidies and climate change, having the UK’s voice round the table is hugely valuable.
As for the idea that the EU is somehow holding Britain back, the truth is that UK trade with the Commonwealth is already booming. Exports to India, South Africa and Australia have all gone up by almost a third over the last two years. This trade will be given a further boost by a whole set of trade agreements in the pipeline. The EU currently has trade deals in force with eighteen Commonwealth countries and has completed negotiations with fourteen more, including Canada and Singapore. Last month the European Commission announced an ambitious new global trade agenda that will see the launch of talks with Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. An even bigger prize, an EU trade agreement with India, is also looking increasingly likely after talks were revived earlier this year. This means that trade deals are already in place or are being negotiated with 45 of the 50 Commonwealth countries outside the EU (Cyprus and Malta are members of both). In all these talks, the combined negotiating clout of the EU puts the UK in a much stronger position that it could ever hope to be in alone. Far from restraining the UK, the EU is increasingly helping to boost British exports overseas.
At a time when the EU is buckling under the strain of multiple crises and growth in the eurozone remains sluggish, the idea that the UK could somehow cut itself loose from the continent rebuild a modern version of the British Empire is undeniably tempting. But while superficially attractive, the truth is this argument is deeply flawed. The UK does not need to turn its back on Europe to boost ties with the Commonwealth. By staying in the EU and continuing to be a powerful voice for openness, fairness and free trade, Britain can have the best of both worlds.