The Commonwealth prides itself on its familial relations, its shared language and its common history and values. Across the Commonwealth, organisations have a chance to draw on these links to build consensus and share good practice. Civil society convenes through the Commonwealth People’s Forum, professionals can exchange knowledge through Commonwealth associations, while Commonwealth governments have many opportunities for multi-lateral discussion on global political issues and sharing government expertise. But for the ordinary citizen, what is the practical value of Commonwealth citizenship today?
This is one of the key questions asked by a new report launched this week: ‘How to Solve a Problem Like a Visa: The unhappy state of Commonwealth migration in the UK’. Produced by Commonwealth Exchange, it begins with a historic overview of Commonwealth citizenship, acknowledging that in former times all citizens were united as British subjects under the Crown. It charts the process whereby British citizenship was reduced to just those citizens from Britain itself. With the process of decolonisation, successive British governments increased restrictions on Commonwealth migration to the UK, leaving a clear advantage for white-majority Commonwealth countries, at the expense of the ‘new Commonwealth’. At the same time the report notes how the UK’s migration policies shifted towards easing immigration from the European Union. The report asks critically whether the UK, ‘is just a European nation or a nation with a true global role’?
In answer to this question, a compelling case for reforming the UK’s visa relations in favour of the Commonwealth is laid out. The report argues that, drawing on shared language, cultural ties and common legal systems, the UK should focus on easing visa regimes for Commonwealth citizens. It outlines a number of practical recommendations through which this could be implemented: from a separate queue at airports to a Commonwealth concession for the price of a tourist visa. The report also takes into account a realisation that visa regimes need time to be negotiated and thus presents both short and long term solutions to ease restrictions for students, tourists, young people and those coming to do business. Its analysis of the UK appetite for such policies is also persuasive. The report is certainly not advocating for a ‘complete open door to unchecked migration flows’.
The report by Commonwealth Exchange is a commendable and practical contribution to the debate on Commonwealth visas, and more importantly, the value of Commonwealth citizenship. It follows from a pan-Commonwealth study on easing visas by the Ramphal Institute concluding that greater ease of movement for Commonwealth citizens would promote tourism, trade and prosperity. This was followed up by further discussion at the Commonwealth heads of Government Meeting in 2013. However, the pan-Commonwealth work of the Ramphal Institute highlights the failure by the Commonwealth Exchange report to analyse the pan-Commonwealth implications of their suggestions.
From the outset there is an insinuation that the UK made a choice for European integration in the 1970s at the expense of the Commonwealth and now must make a choice in favour of the Commonwealth, possibly at the expense of Europe. Yet the experiences of the rest of the Commonwealth suggest that any UK decisions do not have to be so stark. Many countries manage multiple international affiliations from the Organisation of American States to the South African Development Community in addition to their Commonwealth engagement. As the European Union becomes a central topic of debate in British politics many actors should look at what they can learn from other Commonwealth nations. Furthermore, many of the participants in the RCS’ conference on Europe and the Commonwealth, argued that the UK should be an influential member of both networks, utilising the opportunities this could bring.
The suggestions in the report acknowledge that different countries bring different benefits to integration, and therefore different types of visa arrangements may suit different countries. The economic, social and security rationale for this is clear; however, there is no discussion of how this can be balanced against a Commonwealth based on equal formal membership. As the Ramphal Institute points out, there is already a pan-Commonwealth discussion on this and there should be a move for pan-Commonwealth consensus. There is a danger that if single solutions such as freedom of movement between the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are prioritised then the outcome could look like the flawed white-favouring policies of the 1970s which Commonwealth Exchange criticise. It is also a shame that the experiences of Commonwealth citizens which the report includes in ‘pen profiles’ largely come from these countries and ignore the diverse experiences of travellers from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Ultimately, in answer to the opening question about the value of Commonwealth citizenship there should be solutions that benefit all Commonwealth citizens.
As many contributors to the launch event made clear, many students, business people and diplomats have expressed dissatisfaction with the visa regime in the UK and have supported broader discussion on eased Commonwealth travel. The report opens another chapter in what is an ongoing debate and one which should provoke innovative discussion from actors across the Commonwealth.