Tel. +44 (0)20 7287 4414
Tel. +44 (0)20 7287 4414
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

Bruges Group Blog

Spearheading the intellectual battle against the EU. And for new thinking in international affairs.

The Commonwealth and Brexit


How the Commonwealth can invigorate Brexit Britain and return the UK and her economy to the top of the world and international politics.

Brexit Doom-mongers in the media and politics will have you know that once we have left the EU, the UK will be cast away, reliant on a self-obsessed US president and unable to speak with confidence in the world. How wrong they are and how wrong they will prove to be, for lying beyond Europe, and even the United States, lies the untapped potential of our allies in the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth of Nations is already far more important than the four-year sporting event of the Commonwealth Games, which inspires its most publicity. The Commonwealth emerged from Britain's colonial legacy to become a political association of 53 independent states, with a population of 2.4 billion people and covering a quarter of the globe. The Commonwealth is made up chiefly of the organisational Commonwealth Secretariat, headed by Patricia Scotland, and the Commonwealth Foundation, which is an agency to promote participation in civil society. This size of its membership and connection to all different continents already gives the Commonwealth relevance today. Yet hiding beneath geography is an economic and political might which Britain must seek to benefit from as we leave the EU.

The last Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, in London April 2018, was dominated by the Windrush Scandal and the issue of choosing the Queen's successor. At a time when Britain is in need of re-inventing her global presence and strengthening her international trade and economy, these issues distracted from the fact that the Commonwealth offers a prospective economic success-story like no other. With an estimated combined GDP of US$10.4 trillion in 2017 which is predicted to reach US$13 trillion in 2020, Commonwealth members also make up six of the top fifteen world fastest growing economies. The Commonwealth is also home to the so called "Commonwealth Effect", where the value of trade between member states is "likely to be a third to a half more" compared to countries without Commonwealth membership. Don't just let these facts prove the attractiveness of the Commonwealth, countries such as Rwanda are joining the Commonwealth despite no historical attachments to the UK. While other countries, such as Zimbabwe, Sudan and Suriname have all expressed interest in joining the global club. All these enthusiastic potential members tout the Commonwealth's "trade and investment opportunities".

Brexit offers the United Kingdom the opportunity to strike independent and handcrafted free trade deals with countries around the world at a speed that would not be possible with the weight of 27 other European nations holding us down. For instance, the Australian-US Free Trade Agreement took only two years to agree, whereas the EU-Mercosur trade deal completed in June 2019 took twenty years. Brexit is the time to realise the Holy Grail of free trade agreements: a commonwealth Free Trade Area (FTA). This would remove trade barriers between all Commonwealth countries. The benefits of such an agreement would be staggering. By way of example, the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had the effect of quadrupling trade between Canada, Mexico and the USA from 1993 to 2018. NAFTA also increased their economic growth (as much as 0.5% per year for the USA) and American financial services' exports, which rose from $25 billion to $106.8 billion in 2007. Now consider that NAFTA was only adding to a pre-existing free trade agreement, while the Commonwealth has none in place at all. Furthermore, NAFTA contains less than a quarter of the Commonwealth's population and none of the top fifteen world's fastest growing economies. Simply put, the economic advantages of a Commonwealth-wide free trade agreement are colossal.

The Remainer-brigade in the Economist, the Times and Labour Party have all poured scorn on the Commonwealth, claiming that the Commonwealth currently only accounts for 9% of UK exports in comparison to 44% of the UK single market. The facts are correct, but these organisations lack two things: ambition and optimism. They willfully forget, that the benefits of the Commonwealth are not in what exists now, but what can develop with British nurture and direction. Even if India with its supposed "mercantilist and outright protectionist" policies, were not included in a free trade agreement, the potential population of the Commonwealth would reach 1.1 billion, more than double the 450 million EU population. The Commonwealth would still have a combined GDP of over US$8 trillion. Why would India not, however, sense the endless opportunities of a Commonwealth Free Trade Area and take part, even if not immediately, but later down the road?

Commonwealth trade co-operation already has a foot in the ground in much wider support of a "Canzuk" (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and UK) Free Trade Area. This is already supported by groups such as the Australian Senate's Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, Canada's Conservative Party and leader Andrew Scheer. One step closer to a Commonwealth-wide agreement, New Zealand's Foreign Minister Winston Peters has already talked up the possibility of a whole Commonwealth FTA. With Britain's ability to take the initiative with Brexit – a Commonwealth FTA is within reach with British leadership and determination.

Britain does not just have initiative in achieving a make-over of the Commonwealth's economic standing. The UK is also the effective leader of the Commonwealth. The UK houses the Secretariat headquarters in London, occupies the Chair-in-Office position until 2020 and most importantly holds the cultural and historical motherland figure, driven by the Commonwealth-wide respect and endearment felt towards the Queen. Brexit Britain can capitalise on our leadership position and use it to be extraordinary and bold. Britain should be aiming to hold more than just biennial and superficial Heads of Government meetings. A Britain post-Brexit, which is determined to re-engage with the Commonwealth and the world, should be constantly pushing and facilitating negotiation and discussion, so that member countries can be persuaded of the benefits of a Free Trade Agreement and closer economic relations. This way, progress will be made, and agreement will be reached. Britain just needs to lead the way and take the first step.

With Great Britain's leadership, the Commonwealth can also become a leading world political player, simultaneously increasing Britain's importance globally as the UK leaves the European Union. The Commonwealth has observed over 140 elections in nearly 40 countries since 1980, contains four of the five members of Five Eyes Alliance, accounts for over 10% of world defence spending and has Armed Forces from numerous member states stationed in over 15 non-commonwealth countries. This means that the Commonwealth already has a global footprint which can be expanded and provide the gateway through which the United Kingdom can grow her own international influence.

Leaving the European Union is an opportunity for the UK to strengthen the ingredient every aspiring nation needs on the world stage: confidence. Britain should use Brexit as the opportunity to work with the Commonwealth to be more vocal in world affairs, to stand up for Commonwealth values around the world. Whether these are electoral violations in Zimbabwe or even climate change, if Britain and the Commonwealth put their money where their mouth is, we will again be respected in global politics: at the UN, at the WTO, against terrorists in Africa or even rogue states in the Middle East. If the Commonwealth can unite around a vision of global leadership, then Britain will be able to benefit individually by being top-dog in the organisation. International importance is not just an end in itself, it will re-inject much needed conviction and pride in British Society, while providing the UK with more international security and with countries queuing up to do business with a nation which finally values itself again.

'Brexit' in Brexit Britain is not a permanent cloud hanging over the UK, but rather an electric motor propelling us forward. We can now ride a more independent, safe and confident course than the one before, with more success than project fear in the media and the political machine could ever have imagined. Brexit must not just be about rejoicing at leaving the EU but rejoicing at being able to now embrace the rest of the world. In doing so, realising that Brexit was not just a calling to become an independent country: able to control immigration and strike new trade deals. Brexit was a calling to shift Britain's focus and alliances so that we spend and forge the future with our true allies and friends in the world, not our phony friends in the EU. These true allies and friends are indeed in the Commonwealth, the peoples and nations we share a history with, a language with, a culture with and a monarchy with. There is so much more we will be able to share with them in the future. We can share stronger economic links, stronger international ambition and a stronger sense of belonging. Brexit is the time to make this change, to embrace the Commonwealth and everything it has to offer. If the UK does this, "Brexit day" will not just be remembered as the day we leave the EU, but the day Britain reinvigorated the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth reinvigorated Britain.


The Commonwealth:

The Royal Commonwealth Society:

Focus Economics: 

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Tel: 020 7287 4414
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Director : Robert Oulds MA, FRSA
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