Commonwealth trade a non-starter for Britain and the Caribbean

Commonwealth trade a non-starter for Britain and the Caribbean


Commonwealth trade ministers and representatives meeting in London

By Caribbean News Now contributor

LONDON, England — What was described as an “historic meeting” of Commonwealth trade and investment ministers in London recently, in an attempt to make use of the “Commonwealth advantage” to boost trade within the 52-member bloc, is more likely to prove to be an exercise in practical futility, and more of cynical attempt at political cosmetics by the British government to allay Brexit fears domestically.

Ministers and representatives from just 35 countries attended the meeting on March 9-10, jointly convened by the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council.

However, Kehinde Andrews, writing in London’s Guardian newspaper in the context of Britain’s scramble for a Commonwealth free trade area widely viewed as “Empire 2.0”, said, speaking of the African experience, “Nations no longer ruled by force and fear will not supplicate themselves to Britain because of misty memories of empire.”

And, he added, “In order to build a prosperous future Britain needs to understand its place in the world; a small island desperately reaching out to countries it formerly ruled in order to try to maintain its relevance. No doubt the former colonies will be willing to trade with Britain. But the idea that these relations will represent anything like those in empire is laughable hubris.”

According to Sir Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the US, the effort in Britain to talk-up the Commonwealth as a free trade area is an illusionary attempt to allay fears that Britain will have what is described as a ‘hard Brexit’ and, therefore, will be left without favourable terms of trade in the EU or any other market.

“The Commonwealth is being touted as the replacement for EU trade. But the reality is that the Commonwealth cannot replace the EU for Britain,” he said.

Liam Fox, the British trade minister, arrived to make the opening speech on March 9 and then left an investment banker, Sir Alan Yarrow, to chair what was in essence an unofficial private sector meeting at which no decision was binding on governments.

A source said that it was clear that many of the representatives from Commonwealth countries present at the meeting “were there for a trip to London and shopping; they had little interest in the meeting”.

“An innocuous statement, clearly prepared by Secretariat officials, and rubber-stamped by representatives of the no more than 35 countries that attended, was issued. It had no concrete proposals, no plan of action, and no commitment from anyone, including the UK, to provide resources to make Commonwealth trade happen, let alone matter,” is how the meeting was described by African representatives.

According to regional commentator, David Jessop, while Australia, India and Canada may have the ability to trade advanced manufactured goods and agricultural produce across the Commonwealth, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) lacks the scale, logistics, proximity and access to finance to be able to benefit significantly from the relatively few goods it produces.

As pointed out by Barbados minister of trade, Donville Inniss, what the economies of Barbados and other small states in the Caribbean require today is not so much access and support in developing their trade in goods, but for their services.