The Commonwealth delusion: why “Empire 2.0” is no substitute for the EU

Liam Fox and Boris Johnson are promoting an economic fantasy. 

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For decades, the Commonwealth was regarded as an antiquated relic. Unlike the EU and Nato, the association of 53 countries (almost all former British colonies) is neither an economic nor a military superpower. It has no supranational authority; most politicians privately describe it as a mere talking shop. When Ukip’s 2010 manifesto proposed a “Commonwealth Free Trade Area” it was a viewed as a mark of the party’s outmodedness.

But as Commonwealth leaders assemble in London (the first time the UK has hosted the summit for 20 years), they are being touted as the route to Britain’s economic salvation. As the UK prepares to leave the EU, Brexiteers such as International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and Boris Johnson are hailing the club as an alternative source of prosperity (Fox’s officials have nicknamed his vision “Empire 2.0”). In 2013, Johnson declared that the UK “betrayed” countries “such as Australia and New Zealand” when it joined the European Economic Community in 1973. As Nick Pearce and Michael Kenny chart in their new book Shadows of Empire, the Foreign Secretary and others have long fantasised of a reinvigorated “Anglosphere” that trumps Brussels.

Leavers point to the Commonwealth’s global reach: it encompasses a third of the world’s people, a fifth of its land mass and around 15 per cent of its wealth. But Brexiteers are less keen to note how economically marginal it is to the UK. While the EU accounts for 48 per cent of British exports, the Commonwealth represents just 9.5 per cent (a share that has been falling). In the field of trade, geography matters more than history. Global companies headquartered in Britain view it as a “gateway” to the EU's lucrative single market. 

The Tories contend, not unreasonably, that the UK could trade far more with the Commonwealth, not least its economic powerhouse India (whose GDP will soon overtake Britain’s). But strengthening relations will not be as simple as they suggest: many former colonies view the UK with ambivalence, warning it not to treat the summit as an imperial bazaar.

As if to validate such concerns, Theresa May has outraged Commonwealth members (and almost everyone else) by failing to meet with 12 Caribbean countries to discuss the threatened future of the Windrush immigrants (No 10 has said the Prime Minister was “not aware” of the request and will now meet with them).

Trade deals take years to negotiate and ratify and, as Brexiteers rarely note, involve give and take. India, for instance, will make any agreement conditional on Britain accepting more of its citizens as immigrants. The Tories, who have vowed to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” a year, will struggle to reconcile this with likely preferential access for EU workers (on who the British economy disproportionately depends).

The project of expanding trade with the Commonwealth is not an irrational or ignoble one. But the belief that this can compensate for frayed links with Europe is a delusion. The government's own analysis suggests that the UK would lose between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of GDP over 15 years from a “hard Brexit” (withdrawal from the single market and the customs union), while new trade deals with the US and others would add no more than 0.6 per cent.

That the Commonwealth is enjoying unprecedented attention is not a mark of British strength but of British weakness.

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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