Backgrounder

The Commonwealth of Nations: Brexit and the Future of ‘Global Britain’

With the United Kingdom moving forward with Brexit, London hopes its Commonwealth partners can help boost trade, but critics say the group is outmoded and ineffective.
Nigerian artist Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy works on a portrait of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.
Nigerian artist Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy works on a portrait of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. Reuters
Summary
  • The Commonwealth is a loose association of fifty-four nations, founded in 1949, that evolved out of the former British Empire.
  • It holds regular summits in pursuit of a variety of objectives, including economic development and trade, democracy promotion, and cultural exchange.
  • It has come under fire for a lack of transparency and weak institutional structure, and in the wake of Brexit its future is increasingly in doubt.

Introduction

As the United Kingdom negotiates its future relationship with the European Union, London has advocated for a vision of a more outward-looking foreign policy, dubbed “Global Britain.” Central to this goal of revitalizing the UK on the world stage is the Commonwealth of Nations, a loose-knit organization of countries—spanning nearly every continent—that evolved out of the British Empire.

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Critics have called the Commonwealth institutions outmoded and ineffective, and the group has at times drawn fire for its inconsistent response to human rights violations and antidemocratic governments. But supporters say the Commonwealth’s fast-growing economies, bolstered by a common history and shared language, offer an ideal platform for the UK to advance its trade agenda and deepen ties with like-minded countries.

What is the Commonwealth of Nations?

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The Commonwealth is an association of fifty-four nations that largely evolved out of the former territories of the British Empire. (In recent years, several countries without historic ties to the UK, such as Rwanda and Mozambique, have also joined.) These countries, which apart from the UK include Australia, Canada, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, and many others throughout Asia and Africa, account for some 2.4 billion people, or a third of the global population. The members’ combined gross domestic product (GDP) tops $10 trillion, or about 14 percent of global GDP.   

The head of the Commonwealth is Queen Elizabeth II, the British monarch. The 1949 London Declaration, which created the Commonwealth in its current form, declared the monarch [PDF], then King George VI, the “symbol of the free association of its independent member nations.”

This association is distinct from the fifteen countries outside the UK in which the British Crown is still legally head of state. Many former British colonies, led by India, sought to remain part of the Commonwealth and benefit from a continued association with the UK without being legally subject to the British Crown. Thus, the separate title of Head of the Commonwealth, which does not necessarily need to be held by a member of the British royal family, was created.

What does it do?

The Commonwealth is a consensus-based, intergovernmental organization with many objectives, including economic development, democracy-building, free trade promotion, poverty reduction, health-care programs, and cultural exchange. Its day-to-day operations are headed by a secretary-general—currently the UK’s Patricia Scotland—who is appointed by Commonwealth leaders to no more than two four-year terms.

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The secretary-general heads the London-based Commonwealth Secretariat, created in 1965 to manage the more than eighty organizations run by the Commonwealth and to organize the group’s regular meetings. The largest of these, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), brings the group’s leaders together every two years to discuss policy priorities. Government ministers of foreign affairs, trade, finance, education, health, and other areas also meet regularly to discuss Commonwealth affairs.

The Secretariat provides training and technical assistance to members and has observed elections in more than forty countries. It supports numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and charities, and hosts the Commonwealth Games, the world’s third-largest sporting event, every four years.

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In 2012, Commonwealth leaders agreed to an official constitution, the Commonwealth Charter, which formally commits member nations to sixteen shared principles. These include democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, sustainable development, and racial and gender equality.

How has it dealt with human rights violations?

The Commonwealth’s members have at times clashed over the group’s stated principles. While the organization is limited to consensus-based actions, it has in the past imposed sanctions and suspended members over human rights abuses. Apartheid-era South Africa was one of the most high-profile cases. The South African government withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961 over the group’s opposition to its race-based governing system, and in 1986 the Commonwealth agreed to a program of economic sanctions that included bans on air travel, bank loans, and other investments in the country. After South Africa’s 1994 elections, it was readmitted to the group.   

​Apartheid-era South Africa was one of the Commonwealth’s most high-profile cases.​

The Commonwealth suspended Nigeria from 1995 until 1999 over its military regime’s human rights abuses. It suspended Pakistan for several years after its 1999 military coup and suspended Fiji twice over military coups there. Zimbabwe’s 2002 suspension was extended indefinitely after Commonwealth observers criticized the country’s elections, leading then President Robert Mugabe to withdraw from the group in 2003.

In February 2020, the Commonwealth readmitted the Maldives after the country’s president, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, implemented democratic reforms that included the release of political prisoners. The country had withdrawn from the Commonwealth in 2016 to avoid a likely suspension over its record of human rights abuses.

What are some criticisms of the organization?

Despite these actions, some analysts have highlighted the Commonwealth’s weak institutional structure, as it has few concrete mechanisms to influence its members’ behavior and often relies on peer pressure and moral authority. Human rights watchdogs also charge that the body has a record of overlooking rights abuses, including anti-LGBTQ+ laws in Gambia and Malawi and widespread atrocities over the course of the civil war in Sri Lanka, a country that hosted the Commonwealth summit in 2013.

There are also concerns about the workings of the Secretariat. Internal reports show that members are worried that it lacks transparency and clarity over its mission, and are uncertain about its funding going forward. Scotland has faced accusations of favoritism for awarding contracts to personal friends, leading UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to take the unusual step of opposing her reappointment to a second term as secretary-general.

More broadly, skeptics say that the group has become increasingly outmoded as the UK’s global leadership has waned. For the editors of the Economist, the group’s geopolitical relevance is an “amiable delusion,” especially since it has done so little on trade, the area in which it has the most natural advantage. Its level of funding is also relatively modest: the Commonwealth’s current budget, which includes its main technical assistance arm, youth fund, and the rest of the Secretariat’s development funding, amounts to about $40 million. The EU, by contrast, spends more than $100 billion yearly on economic development and other assistance.

How does it fit in with the UK’s post-Brexit plans?

Brexit supporters skeptical of deeper integration with the EU have long held up the Commonwealth as a more natural forum for the UK, based on historical ties, a shared use of English, and similar legal traditions. With Brexit now official and London busy negotiating a new trade relationship with the EU, some policymakers say that the UK’s post-EU future should lie in deepening trade and immigration with the Commonwealth.

Johnson, who previously served as foreign minister, has argued that the Commonwealth’s higher economic growth rates in comparison with the EU offer greater opportunity. Commonwealth economies have grown at an average rate of 4.4 percent over the past four decades, compared with the EU’s 2 percent, with some large Commonwealth economies such as India’s achieving annual growth of 7 percent.   

Some argue Brexit would free the UK to forge trade deals with these fast-growing regions of the world.

In this vision, dubbed “Global Britain” [PDF] by its supporters, Brexit will free the UK to forge trade deals with these fast-growing regions of the world. Supporters also argue that it would allow the UK to focus on boosting highly skilled immigration from Commonwealth countries and avoid unlimited immigration from Europe, as EU rules require.

Other observers are skeptical that the Commonwealth can match the benefits of EU membership. The EU market accounts for nearly half of the UK’s trade, and there are no Commonwealth countries among the UK’s top ten largest trading partners. Trade experts point to economic research establishing that geographic proximity is among the most important factors in determining trade, meaning that EU countries are likely to remain the UK’s most natural trade partners.

These critics also note that some of the largest Commonwealth countries, especially India, have highly protected economies, and that lowering their trade barriers could prove harder than Brexit supporters anticipate. The EU has so far failed to secure a free trade deal with India, and the UK, on its own, may not fare much better

Meanwhile, the group’s next summit is set for June 2020 in Rwanda, and will be the first to take place in a country that was never a British-controlled territory. Questions over how, and how much, to reform the Commonwealth’s operations and leadership are likely to persist. The 2018 summit officially chose Charles, the Prince of Wales and next in line for the British throne, to succeed Queen Elizabeth as head of the Commonwealth, despite previous discussions over democratizing the leadership selection.

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