Commonwealth Trade

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By Elizabeth Morgan

Commonwealth Foreign Ministers will be meeting in London under the chairmanship of the United Kingdom (UK/Britain) on Wednesday, July 10. The Ministers will be addressing preparations for the 2020 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and commemorating the 70th anniversary of the modern Commonwealth. I saw this as an opportunity to provide an update on Commonwealth trade activities to be reported to the Commonwealth Trade Ministers’ Meeting in London, October 7-10 and the 2020 CHOGM in Rwanda.

You may recall that Malta, which is both a member of the Commonwealth and the European Union (EU), initiated discussions in 2005 on promoting intra-Commonwealth trade.

With Brexit, the Eurosceptics saw the Commonwealth, with its 53 Member States, including the Commonwealth Caribbean, as a potential regenerated trade option. Many saw this as a nostalgic recall of the British Empire.

With the UK assuming the chair of the Commonwealth when it hosted the CHOGM in April 2018, it was expected to focus on promoting trade and investment. The Conference adopted the Declaration on the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda for Trade and Investment to promote economic growth and achieve the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The UK and the Commonwealth

In an effort to boost UK trade and investment relationships, in August 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May, visited three African Commonwealth countries, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.  Britain also concluded continuity agreements with the EU Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) countries in Africa, the Caribbean (the Caribbean ACP Forum) and the Pacific. It seems, the UK would also have to conclude continuity agreements with other Commonwealth countries, Canada and Singapore, which have free trade agreements with the EU.

It has to be seen whether the UK is interested in trade arrangements with Commonwealth Member States or in a Commonwealth free trade area.

Implementing the Trade and Investment Connectivity Declaration

Since April 2018, Commonwealth trade activities have been overshadowed by Brexit. The UK is scheduled to leave the EU on October 31 weeks after the Commonwealth Trade Ministers’ Meeting. In October, Brexit could be taking priority. Focus has also been diverted by controversy surrounding the management of the Commonwealth Secretariat by the Secretary General, Rt. Hon. Patricia Scotland.

Regardless of distractions, the Commonwealth has been working to implement the Connectivity Declaration. Connectivity Clusters have been established on Physical (trade facilitation, infrastructure development), Digital (developing national digital economies), Regulatory (improving and understanding regulatory regimes), Business-Business (supporting dialogue, capacity building), Supply-side (encouraging participation in value chains), and collaboration with other organizations to mainstream inclusive and sustainable trade. Jamaica and other Commonwealth Caribbean countries attended senior officials’ meetings in London, Malaysia, and Vanuatu, as the clusters were launched.

The conveners of the connectivity cluster groups, Gambia, South Africa, Barbados, Bangladesh, Vanuatu, New Zealand and Malaysia, met in London in May. It is reported that they created a roadmap for realizing the Connectivity Agenda as a means of increasing trade benefits. The Commonwealth Connectivity Week will be held in August. All these events are in preparation for the October Commonwealth Trade Ministers’ Meeting.

The Commonwealth at the WTO

Previously, the Commonwealth, without cohesive trade interests, never met as a group at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Since September 2018, it appears that New Zealand has been trying to convene a Commonwealth WTO group in Geneva to discuss means of supporting the WTO multilateral system. Whether this group can be sustained remains to be seen.

CARICOM and the Commonwealth

Commonwealth trade is not on the agenda of the CARICOM Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED). Not all CARICOM countries are Commonwealth members as Haiti and Suriname are not. A Caribbean study of Commonwealth trade to determine a policy position has not been done as yet. Commonwealth Caribbean countries are still mainly exporting among themselves, with Britain, Canada, New Zealand and possibly India and Ghana. The exports are at low levels. Caribbean countries have to examine how they will improve trade and investment flows with existing trade partners and develop new markets in other Commonwealth countries.

It is still not clear whether Commonwealth members are committed to an internal trade arrangement which would have the UK as a central player.


Submitted by Elizabeth Morgan, Specialist in International Trade Policy and International Politics

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