On the 27th October 2016, The Royal Commonwealth Society held an Ambassadors' Round Table on the topic of Brexit.
This meeting builds on our recent Roundtables for Commonwealth High Commissioners on the topic of Brexit. The RCS invited Ambassadors accredited to the Court of St James’s to a Roundtable in the House of Lords chaired by the President of the RCS, Lord Howell of Guildford, to offer them an opportunity to learn more about Commonwealth nations and how to build a greater understanding of the challenges and opportunities with these nations post-Brexit.
Sir Peter Westmacott, former British Ambassador to the United States, gave the keynote address. Sir Peter said that the Commonwealth had made a positive difference in areas such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights. It was strong because it was a voluntary association of nation states, almost a family. It had developed good links with other organisations, notably the Francophonie. Sir Peter expected Brexit to spark the re-activation of old links between the UK and Commonwealth members, but it was unlikely to cause the resurrection of anything akin to the historical Commonwealth Preference system of tariffs. He noted that bloc to bloc trading agreements were not faring well (citing CETA's problems) and the future might well lie in smaller scale bilateral trade deals. Sir Peter also offered a brief view on the Brexit prospects – he thought much of the co- operation on political and security issues might continue under a side deal or deals; and he observed that in parallel with Brexit the EU needed to sort out its own internal difficulties.
His Excellency Mr. Alexander Downer, High Commissioner for Australia, said that the Commonwealth had adapted itself impressively over the years, using the bonds of the English language, common legal systems and shared values. He paid particular tribute to its contribution to the ending of apartheid. The UK had done a lot for the ACP members of the Commonwealth when joining the EU and it was important that UK markets should remain open to them. The High Commissioner commented that the voices of the anti-free traders were being heard more loudly at the moment, although he doubted that their numbers were any greater than before. The difficulties with CETA were a major setback. The Commonwealth needed the UK to have a smooth Brexit – a difficult adjustment for the EU which would lose 20% of its economy. A rough Brexit would play into the hands of the protectionists. He hoped the Commonwealth would move more into the trade field. His Excellency Mr. Muyeba Chikonde, High Commissioner for Zambia, observed that there was not much contact between the EU and the Commonwealth in third countries (citing his own experience in South Africa). He said that the Commonwealth needed to face up to the reality of Brexit, and all Commonwealth members needed to re-engage with the UK. Links with the Francophonie needed to be deepened. He endorsed the Commonwealth Secretary-General's desire to reform the Commonwealth and to engage with new partners. He also drew attention to the positive role of the Commonwealth in election observation, as witness the recent election in Zambia.
Following these contributions a number of points were raised including:
A general desire to look to the future and not be defined by the past, in a new more networked world which required a new language (with nation states making something of a come-back);
The Commonwealth had a lot of soft power provided it was ready to use it;
It was impressive that the Commonwealth had managed to hold to the values of the Singapore and Harare Declarations, and of its Charter, over several years;
The Commonwealth could do more to work with regional trading blocs, and could see itself more as a network of networks;
Defining the Commonwealth's advantage was not always easy, for example the Patterns of Dialogue within the Commonwealth were much more valuable than they sounded to outsiders.