Britain is hoping this week’s Commonwealth summit will boost trade with its historic partners as it prepares to quit the European single market after Brexit.
The UK is pouncing on the organisation’s analysis showing the advantages of trade between Commonwealth countries due to their common language and legal systems.
But some are warning that Britain’s trade with Commonwealth nations lags so far behind that with its European Union neighbours that a straight replacement is impossible.
The 53 member states are gathering for their biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), being hosted this year in London.
The summit proper takes place on Thursday and Friday but kicked off Monday with three days of forums and events that lay the groundwork.
Born out of the former British empire, the voluntary organisation, covering a third of the world’s population, focuses on development and democracy, but is placing greater attention on boosting trade.
Intra-Commonwealth trade is expected to increase by at least 17 percent to around $700 billion by 2020, according to the 2018 Commonwealth Trade Review.
There are “opportunities for the UK in the post-Brexit period to… negotiate new bilateral trade agreements with interested Commonwealth members,” the report said.
Britain is set to leave the EU in March 2019. It is seeking new trade deals outside the European single market and is looking to its former global network to make up for any slack.
London is going for the hard sell during CHOGM, hosting a reception aimed at showcasing British exports, from food and drink to the English Premier League football trophy.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said: “Our Commonwealth family already accounts for one fifth of global trade, and we must continue to work together to build further upon this solid foundation by building on our existing trade links and establishing new ones.”
The Commonwealth’s business chief Jonathan Marland told The Times newspaper that it would be a “dereliction of duty” if Britain failed to boost exports to member states and persuade them to commit formally to free trade.
However, The Economist magazine said the Commonwealth “won’t save Britain from Brexit”, calling the idea that Commonwealth business could replace EU trade “an amiable delusion”.
In terms of goods and services trade in 2016, Britain does more business with 15 countries — nine of them in the EU — before its biggest Commonwealth trade partners Canada and India.
Overall, the EU accounts for nearly half of Britain’s trade; the Commonwealth just a tenth.
Youth role for Prince Harry
Queen Elizabeth II, the Head of the Commonwealth, is hosting a dinner for the leaders on Thursday at Buckingham Palace in London. On Friday they gather in private at Windsor Castle, west of the city.
She has newly appointed her grandson Prince Harry, 33, as her Commonwealth youth ambassador.
He opened Monday’s sessions by telling youth leaders he hoped get them working together to ensure “maximum impact” in finding solutions to global problems.
To cheers, Harry said the US actress Meghan Markle, whom he is due to wed on May 19, was “hugely excited” to be joining him in his new task.
Given its highly diverse membership, if agreements can be struck within the Commonwealth, they can likely achieve wider support.
At the last Commonwealth summit in Malta in November 2015, leaders struck a deal on climate change that helped pave the way for the Paris agreement days afterwards.
This time, the group is hoping to agree an ocean governance charter, a connectivity agenda for trade and investment, and a declaration on tackling cyber crime.
The summit comes immediately after the 2018 quadrennial Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast.
Jamaican sprinting legend Usain Bolt played the DJ at Sunday’s closing ceremony after an 11-day event where the hosts comfortably topped the medals table ahead of England, India and Canada.