LONDON — Note to Liam Fox: Britain’s former colonies don’t want to be colonies again.
As the U.K.’s international trade secretary delivers a high profile speech in London extolling his vision of “Global Britain” with trading links around the world, he would do well to mark the sensitivities of Commonwealth countries who don’t want to become Britain’s post-Brexit crutch.
Commonwealth leaders are keen to prevent their biennial gathering in London later this year being dragged into the Brexit quagmire.
Organizers of the April summit are studiously avoiding a U.K. focus in any trade talks, keen to ensure the meeting reflects the guiding principle of equality between the 53 nations.
A U.K. minister close to the organization of the event, who did not want to be named, said there had been a concerted effort to make sure that the event did not look like “Empire 2.0” after previous criticisms that Britain’s post-Brexit Commonwealth trade push had colonial connotations.
“We bend over backwards to make it look like it is not the U.K. club,” the minister said.
The roots of the Commonwealth go back to the British Empire, when some countries were ruled directly or indirectly by Britain. While some members retain Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, they are now self-governing, and the transnational organization is voluntary and based on free and equal cooperation. It also includes countries with no historical ties to the British Empire.
But a post-Brexit bid by International Trade Secretary Liam Fox to boost trade with the African Commonwealth nations last year was reportedly described by Whitehall officials as “Empire 2.0.”
Commonwealth trade will be discussed by leaders as part of the “prosperity” agenda, but there will be no specific U.K. weighting on the main agenda, even though London is host, according to a figure close to the organization of the event. They also emphasized the Commonwealth is not a trading bloc.
It is the Commonwealth secretariat that sets the agenda, although Commonwealth countries, including the host nation, are consulted.
Teddy Soobramanien, the Commonwealth’s adviser on international trade, said: “The agenda won’t formally focus on any post-Brexit trade deals. Those are trade issues that the U.K. and interested Commonwealth members can take up bilaterally. The secretariat stands ready to assist members, should they need support on those issues.”
The biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is being held in the U.K. for the first time since 1997. It was originally going to be hosted by Vanuatu but was moved to the U.K. after a cyclone severely damaged the Pacific island nation’s infrastructure.
The week-long event will culminate in a retreat at Windsor Castle, where leaders will finalize an agenda for the Commonwealth secretariat for the following two years.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said boosting intra-Commonwealth trade and tackling inequality would be a priority at the forthcoming meeting, where the U.K. will demonstrate its commitment to global free trade and ways the Commonwealth can help champion this.
“By using the combined strength of the Commonwealth we have an opportunity to build a global economy that works for everyone,” the spokesman added.
Soobramanien said the summit was expected to express support for a strong rules-based multilateral trading system, explore ways to support implementation of the World Trade Organization’s Trade Facilitation Agreement, enhance support for smaller countries to build their trading capacity and better participate in trade, and “strengthen dialogue and cooperation.”
It will also launch a Commonwealth trade review focusing on new technologies, like digital trade and fintech, and further reducing trade costs.
While post-Brexit trade will not be explicitly on the agenda, ministers hope to push the U.K.’s goals of increased economic links on the margins of the summit.
Giving evidence to the foreign affairs select committee last week, Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the United Nations Tariq Ahmad said the meeting provided a “huge opportunity” to advance trade deals.
“We are hoping that through the bilateral discussion that will take place there will be huge opportunities to, if not sign trade deals, certainly start those trade discussions as well where they have not begun … we are not setting any particular target but there are huge opportunities for us.”
Privately though, U.K. government ministers admit there is unlikely to be much progress on trade in April. One senior U.K. official told POLITICO there is “nothing substantive in this space as yet.”