Is the Commonwealth a Real Alternative to UK Membership of the European Union?

Commonwealth UK flagAdvocates of a UK exit from the European Union sometimes propose the Commonwealth as a natural alternative, often on the grounds that its members share historical and cultural ties with the UK. Maria Mut Bosque, Lecturer in International Law and EU Law at the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya, revisits the UK’s relationship to the Commonwealth, how it was affected by EU membership, and what roles it might play in the Brexit debate.

If there is a British political group that is united in its desire for a UK exit of the EU, and instead advocates a return to the UK’s Commonwealth roots, it is UKIP. UKIP’s 2015 manifesto clearly stated:

“The British exit will be a huge relief for many other EU members, who have known all along that the vast majority of the British people find the idea of political union with the rest of Europe abhorrent.

Our leaving will set them free to have full political union […] and set us free to make the most of all our links with the Commonwealth, with North America, Australasia, much of Africa, the Indian subcontinent and all the other countries where English is the first or second language, as well as, of course, with Europe and the EU itself”.

However, reality is always more complex. The Commonwealth is often thought about with nostalgia, but there is a lack of knowledge about what Commonwealth membership entails for the UK, as well as what kind of role the UK will effectively develop within this institution. Those who advocate replacing the EU with the Commonwealth generally do so because they view the Commonwealth as an appealing and simpler option to manage. But how truthful is this?

In the past, Queen Elizabeth has underscored the importance of the Commonwealth, explaining that the Commonwealth is of key importance to UK international relations and referring to it as a “family of Nations” whose ties reach beyond politics, religion and economic circumstances. Nor had the UK’s Conservative Government forgotten the Commonwealth. Back in 2009, William Hague petitioned for an energetic approach to the Commonwealth, highlighting how the Commonwealth comprises 53 states and that trade and investment within the Commonwealth now accounts for over 20% of the total world share (with the potential for increase), which would result in huge economic benefits which Britain should capitalise upon.

However, membership of the European Community (EC) required the UK to adopt some trade, as well as commercial and agricultural, adjustments that were harmful for some of the Commonwealth member states. Until the 1970s, the Commonwealth had a sui generis preferential trade and sterling area (known as the Imperial Trade Area) while the European Community was working for the gradual establishment of a common market and a single currency. Britain’s choice of the EC over the Commonwealth resulted in the dismantling of the Commonwealth preferential trade and sterling area and the shift in the foreign policy strategies of some Commonwealth members. Australia and New Zealand were critical of British membership of the EC since their trade interests, especially in the agricultural area, were damaged. These countries instead opted for new alliances with other countries such as the USA. The most important consequence for the UK was that it ceased to be the central player in the Commonwealth.

To my mind, the fact is that the Commonwealth and the European Union cover different areas of interstate cooperation. The European Union is focused on trade, albeit not exclusively. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth is centred on development cooperation as well as humanitarian aid. Being a member of both is no longer mutually exclusive and it would be erroneous to approach the matter as such. Unlike the EU, the Commonwealth does not have a common market, where the UK can enjoy free trade. There are voices that advocate for the resettlement of a free trade area in the Commonwealth, but this option would be greatly difficult, taking into account the wide range of Commonwealth member states, as well as their heterogeneous trade models and regulations. We cannot forget that the Commonwealth includes some of the world’s richest states as well as some of the poorest ones. It is well known that the first step required to establish a free trade area entails the harmonisation of the different member countries’ commercial rules. Moreover, at present, the UK’s major trading partners, apart from the USA, are member states of the EU, such as Germany and the Netherlands.

Although the Commonwealth and the EU are very different organisations, they both share some areas of activity in which they could collaborate and act in unified manner. Examples of this are the fight against climate change, development cooperation and humanitarian aid. To my mind, this is the direction that the UK’s external strategy should follow. The UK should serve as a bridge between both organisations to coordinate, as far as possible, their common work. At present, the relationship between the Commonwealth and the EU is not very significant despite the great potential that regular collaboration could mean to both of them. In this sense, the UK could recover a central position in Europe as well as in the Commonwealth by helping to channel a stable relationship between both organisations. The UK must spearhead the process of mutual understanding and collaboration between these organisations, as well as help to restore the international weight that the Commonwealth has lost, and what better way to do it than by being the bridge between them?


Dr Maria Mut Bosque is Lecturer in International Law and EU Law at the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya and Research Fellow at UCL’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.


Featured image credit: Epping Forest District Council (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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