The 25th biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) takes place from 19-20 April in London, United Kingdom, under the theme “Towards a Common Future”. South Africa and other nations from the global south will accordingly be in attendance. Under the new stewardship of President Cyril Ramaphosa, it is still unclear as to what the country plans to table at this important international platform. And from a continental vantage point of Africa, no unified position has been articulated for this critical meeting, after all not all members of the African Union (AU) form part of the Commonwealth. Delayed by a few months and fortuitously rescheduled to be hosted by the United Kingdom following a natural disaster in the pacific island of Vanuatu, the original designated host, CHOGM 25 occurs in a different world for Britain and the Commonwealth nations broadly. The “Common Future” theme for the summit is doubly apposite for the limping Conservative government of Prime Minister Theresa May, which has suffered several setbacks and embarrassment at home and abroad. A seemingly generic agenda for the meeting has been forthrightly mapped out by the host, neatly prioritising the following four goals:
- Prosperity: boosting intra-Commonwealth trade and investment;
- Security: increasing cooperation across security challenges including global terrorism, organised crime and cyber-attacks;
- Fairness: promoting democracy, fundamental freedoms and good governance across the Commonwealth; and
- Sustainability: building the resilience of small and vulnerable states to deal with the effects of climate change and other global crises.
Instead of settling for the four stated priorities, South Africa and the continent should be proactively and directly contemplating a bespoke trade and immigration deal with the United Kingdom. More importantly, for President Ramaphosa, this juncture is well-timed to lead the repositioning of Africa’s relations with Britain even though the President of South Africa does not automatically carry a direct mandate from the AU in this regard. At this occasion, Africa is arguably better poised than ever before to strike better deals with their weaker and vulnerable former coloniser. Currently the Commonwealth does not have a multilateral trade agreement. One may also argue that Britain needs Africa and the Commonwealth nations more as they are a significant market of 53 nations and an estimated 2.4 billion people. On the other hand, Commonwealth nations in general stand to benefit more from their trade relations with the superior European Union market than with the stand-alone Britain.
The 2016 European Union (EU) membership referendum, popularly dubbed “Brexit”, whereby 52% of British voters opted for leaving the EU as well as the early general election in June 2017, which left the Conservative Party with a reduced majority forcing it into the so called “confidence and supply” agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have notably scarred Theresa May’s tenure at Downing street. From a continental Europe perspective, the UK’s decision to leave the EU has spelled an uncertain future for the British economy as trade relations are bound to be reconfigured. Brussels seems to have assumed an adversarial stance that is likely to punish London and conjure up regret for the withdrawal. With the decision for leaving the EU due to be finally executed by March 2019, the United Kingdom is busy negotiating possibilities of a new deal with Europe whilst also looking at the Commonwealth as a potential trade alternative to Europe. However, the eyeing of the Commonwealth market as a ready and captive audience for British goods and services is poised to resurface the contentious issue of immigration. The latter seems to be on the blind spot for the gleeful and optimistic government of Theresa May, especially given that accessing overseas markets for goods and services is inseparable from the movement of people.
One may strongly argue that following the uncertainty brought by Brexit and the snap election, Britain naturally and strongly counts on her relations with the Commonwealth to salvage her trade relations. This rare feat of a former coloniser looking down south for help has been witnessed before in the case of Portugal reaching out to Angola after the 2008 global recession. The story of global trade is never complete without factoring-in immigration. As Britain prepares to welcome Commonwealth nations this month the prejudice and anti-immigration sentiments at the heart of Brexit remain latent and cannot be wished away by pomp and ceremony at Buckingham Palace. It certainly bears mentioning that the very emotive issue of immigration that was instrumental in tilting sentiments of British people towards leaving the EU remains unresolved. The very people that the Brits were unhappy with coming onto their shores most likely originate from most of the developing nations which form part of the Commonwealth edifice. One may conclude that the British people selfishly wanted a deal that allows the movement of goods and services sans people. The reality however is that in the world of modern global trade and economic integration people, goods, and services become entwined making it difficult for one to cherry-pick. It is this message that should be hammered by South Africa, Africa, and other developing nations to the Conservative government and Britain as a whole. As Africa has regressed into higher levels of indebtedness since the global recession of 2008, going forward the continent should aim for nothing less than balanced and fair trade deals that accommodate their priorities and provide opportunities for knowledge exchange to catalyse the beneficiation of goods domestically as well as the free movement of people. These are the ideals that should characterise Africa’s economic diplomacy not only when engaging the United Kingdom but also other potential parties such as China and North America.
Dr Mabutho Shangase is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) associated with UNISA and a Lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD