2016 was a year of seismic global developments, which will begin to take effect in the next 12 months. The UK voted to leave the European Union and the negotiations to begin this process are likely to be triggered in the Spring. Donald Trump won the US Election, while António Guterres was appointed Secretary-General of the United Nations. Both will begin their mandates in January and will have huge influence over global affairs far beyond the Commonwealth. Below, we look at the events beyond the headlines that will shape the Commonwealth in 2017.

Malta’s Commonwealth and European Leadership

Having hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 2015, Malta will retain its role as Commonwealth Chair in Office until the UK takes over in 2018. In addition, as of this month Malta holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, essentially the upper House of the European Union’s legislature. The former role is more symbolic than the latter but having these Commonwealth and European positions will give Malta substantial opportunity to help set agendas in these groupings. A number of Malta’s stated European priorities including security, social inclusivity and maritime policy connect to Commonwealth initiatives such as the Countering Violent Extremism Unit authorised at CHOGM 2015, discussions on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals and gender equality and an ongoing Commonwealth focus on small states, including more recently the value of the Blue Economy. Malta’s potential role in connecting the European Union and the Commonwealth is even more important as the UK prepares for Brexit in the next few years.

Ministerial Meetings

This year new architecture will be put in place to capitalise on the ‘Commonwealth trade advantage’ of lower bilateral costs for Commonwealth businesses. Commonwealth Trade Ministers will meet for the first time in March 2017 in London. Co-hosted by the UK and Maltese governments and organised by the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, the Ministers Meeting will help identify areas where the Commonwealth can work together to strengthen trade and investment links between member countries and develop a policy agenda ahead of the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. In addition to this new initiative, regular meetings of Ministers of Health, Finance, Law, Youth and Foreign Affairs will take place in 2017. The Commonwealth Forestry Conference in India in April and the Commonwealth Local Government Conference held in Malta in November are some of the other key Commonwealth events happening this year.

Commonwealth Elections

National elections are always significant in a network that prides itself on recognising, ‘the inalienable right of individuals to participate in democratic processes’. This year Kenya, Rwanda and Papua New Guinea will all hold national elections. The Commonwealth has played a role in sending Election Observer Groups and Missions to a range of Commonwealth countries to ensure elections meet international standards. The Commonwealth could well send similar delegations to these elections.

Though outside the Commonwealth, Gambia’s election in 2016 could have ramifications for the Commonwealth in the year ahead. In November, opposition leader Adam Barrow shocked the world by defeating Gambia’s sitting President for the previous 22 years, Yahya Jammeh. Barrow had stated that he would return the country to the Commonwealth, following Jammeh’s withdrawal in 2013 as well as other organisations that the incumbent had distanced Gambia from. However, after originally accepting the results, President Jammeh is now refusing to concede power to Barrow and the army is backing him. Several regional leaders are trying to mediate but time will tell whether Jammeh can be persuaded to respect the democratic process, which could allow a new relationship between the Commonwealth and Gambia to flourish.

Cultural Highlights in 2017

2017 is not just politically significant for many countries but also culturally and historically. Canada will celebrate 150 years of Confederation, India and Pakistan will celebrate 70 years and Malaysia and Ghana will celebrate 60 years since the end of colonial rule. The UK and India will celebrate their strong modern connections with 2017 designated the UK-India Year of Culture. Across the Commonwealth, Commonwealth Day remains one of the most important occasions to celebrate Commonwealth ties and bonds. This year’s theme of ‘A Peace-building Commonwealth’ reflects that at a time of increasing instability and uncertainty in the world, the Commonwealth family of nations, great and small, becomes an ever more needed source of strength and hope for all its members. Commonwealth citizens, RCS branches and other organisations will be celebrating Commonwealth Day and reflecting on this theme across the Commonwealth. As always, the RCS will be organising the Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey. Ahead of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, the Queen’s Baton Relay will be launched on Commonwealth Day before beginning its tour on the 15th March in Sierra Leone. Travelling for 388-days throughout all nations and territories, the Relay will be the longest in Commonwealth Games history. 

Throughout 2017 the RCS will be working to promote the value and values of the Commonwealth. Find out more about our work here.