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27 November 2015

British Influence: The EU or the Commonwealth? Britain can have both

Britain’s best service to the Commonwealth is to stay and shape a European Union which needs Britain more than ever.

[...] Today, the Empire is striking back. Europe is now portrayed as a deadweight, begging for alms and pinning global Britain down. The emerging economies of the Commonwealth suddenly look rather exciting. Papers and comment sites are filled with articles asking why on earth the British threw their lot in with the losers in the first place.

For the Leave campaign, talking up the Commonwealth brings a neat gift - an internationalist rebuttal to the accusation that they, at heart, are a bunch of nostalgic little Englanders bent on pulling up the Dover drawbridge. Their argument goes: if Britain left the EU we would be able to expand trade in Commonwealth countries, no longer being, as Douglas Carswell would say, “shackled to a corpse”.

And why not? Among its 53 members the Commonwealth contains at least seven of the fastest-growing global countries with ballooning new markets collectively exporting more than £1.5 trillion of goods and services each year. [...]

Nevertheless, talk of the Commonwealth forming the dynamic, like-minded, free-trading core of a new British global network for prosperity is one thing. Leaving membership of the world’s biggest single market to do that is another.

Only six Commonwealth countries accounted for 84 per cent of Commonwealth trade in 2011. Those countries – call them the CAMBIS - are Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Britain, India and Singapore. All have or are negotiating free trade agreements with the EU today. Also, the Commonwealth is not Britain writ large. It is dominated by rising powers such as India and South Africa who are routinely on the opposing side of the free trade and transparency argument when it comes to most big issues of trade or foreign policy.

So a binary "pro-Commonwealth-anti-EU" argument misses the point. It was James Maxton, the veteran Labour leader in the inter-war years, who said that if you can’t ride two horses you had no right to be in the circus. Increased trade with Commonwealth countries is perfectly possible for Britain. It does not have to shed itself of Europe for that to happen.

The transformed international scene is now filling up with a quilt of new networks and alliances. The Commonwealth and Europe are two of these. Britain should be leading in both. It is why the irony for the leavers is that the other CAMBIS nations have said that Britain’s best service to the Commonwealth is to stay and shape a European Union which needs Britain more than ever.

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