With Friends like these: The Commonwealth, the EU and Britain’s place in the world

Whatever the bloody details of Sri Lanka’s long civil war, there is little doubt that the Commonwealth should have chosen a better venue for last month’s Head’s of Government Meeting.  Instead, by granting Sri Lanka’s centre stage of the grand gathering, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been given the chance to gloss over alleged war crimes and the anti-democratic record of his government. This has given David Cameron’s government a wholly unnecessary headache-one which David Cameron could have avoided. The Prime Minister should have followed Stephen Harper of Canada and kept himself (and Prince Charles) at home. More significant maybe the damage to the Commonwealth.

Despite having been warned against up to a year in advance, neither the Prime Minister nor the Foreign Office seemed able to avoid the embarrassment in Colombo. This has been a blow to the Conservative-led government’s reputation for leadership in foreign policy only two months after David Cameron couldn’t get his own party, let alone the House of Commons, to back him on Syria. In opposition, Conservative spokespeople liked to accuse Labour governments of neglecting the Commonwealth and favouring the EU over an older and more reliable organisation. However last year’s House of Commons Report criticised the current government’s lack of engagement with the organisation.

It is often those within the Conservative Party, who keenly seek a British exit from the EU, who see the Commonwealth as a better way to engage with the world. A means to exchange one arrangement where they feel they can’t control, for another in which they think they’ll always get their way and gain access to emerging markets. It was only this August when Boris Johnson said that Britain must “Raise our eyes beyond Europe” to the Commonwealth countries “we betrayed”.  Those for whom this argument is comforting should take Colombo’s embarrassment as a timely reminder of that dealing with the Commonwealth can be difficult and as likely to lead to embarrassment as a cosy new (or rather old) world order.

Certainly the economic argument may seem appealing, as the Commonwealth is home to some of the world’s important emerging markets and energy giants, after all what do Canada, Singapore and India all have in common, other than a robust economy and membership of the post-imperial club? However there is one other important similarity in these three: they are all discussing or finalising free trade agreements with the EU. Yes, it is Britain’s links with Brussels that has re-opened her to more tariff-free trade with her former colonies. Keep Britain in Europe to help us trade with old-Empire? Cameron could do worse for a future tory referendum slogan.  The fact is that outside the EU Britain would have to renegotiate trade deals with leading Commonwealth economies a few steps behind the pace of European neighbours, something nostalgic eurosceptics need to wake-up to.

In the end these arguments seem about the same as those who say we should choose between the EU and NATO. Even with that organisation’s existential questions few in Britain (or France or Spain or Italy or neutral Finland for that matter) would want to entrust Brussels with defence.

However it is not only the Prime Minister but also the Commonwealth itself which has landed-itself with difficult questions to answer; adding injury to insult coming only a month after tiny Gambia unceremoniously left the organisation. While the official communique is full of high-minded ‘core values’ there can be little doubt the group has taken a serious credibility battering as a result.

The organisation has found itself beneath a storm of dire predictions, on the left The Guardian who had previously warned of it being “anachronistic-self indulgence”, predicted “beginning of the end”. However this time around Commonwealth-scepticism was not simply a version of euroscpeticism from the left. Similar vitriol came from the right where a leader in The Economist said it might simply “deserve to die”.  The Times and The Spectator similarly doubted the organisation held little meaningful future. All this couldn’t possibly stem from a the embarrassment in Colombo, it indicates a wider distrust in this formerly valued institution of British foreign policy.

When viewed in parallel with a rise in euroscpeticism, even in respectable circles this may stem from a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan desire to take a step back from the world and all its nastiness, which now be the same for former colonies as well as continental neighbours and the Middle-East? The rejection of Tony Blair style intervention in Syria may have laid bare a world-weariness in the former colonial power, or so the line of thinking goes. The consequences of such thinking are quite serious for our place a world and long-term standing. Following the House of Commons vote on Syria the Chancellor, George Osborne, stated that Britain needed to enter a “period of soul-searching” about its place in the world.

While this month France continues to march her troops into their third African intervention in two years, Britain’s sabers look much less rattled. Perhaps as equally as telling was a debate focused on the Royal Navy’s current absence of aircraft carriers. This May, Parliament convened a new Committee on, “Soft Power and the UK’s Influence”, compared to France Britain’s power does look somewhat softer, but withdrawn from the Commonwealth there might be less influence altogether.

For its part the Commonwealth is unlikely to disintegrate purely on the basis of domestic British ennui. Like many international groups of disparate nations it is in need of a new sense purpose, the kind that helped end apartheid in South Africa offers the kind of open channels of dialogue between rich and poor nations seldom found at among other international bodies.

The answers the Commonwealth’s critics have, like many eurosceptics, to difficult questions are often thin on the ground.  If the Commonwealth really is “the world’s largest and most awkward school reunion” where “none of us really have anything in common” why do so many diverse nations continue to hang-around? Why did Mozambique, Madagascar and Algeria actually apply to join to Commonwealth despite having never been colonies? (Mozambique joined in 1995). Why have so few countries ever left? And if it really is ridiculed in the West as very-British nostalgia then why have France and Portugal tried, with less success, to copy it? Gambia has recently left, but it’s President is said to have “left reality a long time ago”.

The fact is, it still provides for democracy promotion, human rights standards, maritime dispute settlement among other things where they otherwise wouldn’t happen. Does anyone really expect the African Union to deliver peace and stability to sub-Saharan Africa? Call it ‘soft power’, call it ‘the bonds of familiarity’ the result is the same; no-one really wants to give-up the Commonwealth games. Who would benefit from an end to the Commonwealth? Exactly the same people who would benefit from a British exit from the EU: nobody.