When Britain began its first attempts to join the European Community in 1961, a major issue for policymakers and the public alike was the impact that the move would have on relations with Commonwealth countries. The decision to join was made in the face of protestations from across the association with the Indian government claiming that British membership would weaken existing Commonwealth links.
In recent years, as the economic outlook in some Commonwealth countries has brightened whilst Europe’s has become increasingly gloomy, the debate has resurfaced.
Recognising the importance of this debate, the Royal Commonwealth Society, in association with the European Commission, brought together policymakers, civil society, diplomats, and businesspeople on the 17th of July for a conference on the EU and the Commonwealth.
Chaired by Peter Kellner, President of YouGov, discussion ranged from the massive potential for increased trade between the EU and Commonwealth countries to the sources of Euroscepticism in the UK. Panellists looked at the differences between Commonwealth and European identity and examined what each organisation could learn from its counterpart.
There was broad agreement that Britain needs to do all that it can to remain in and get the most out of both communities, with Lord Howell, former Minister of State at the FCO, dismissing the ‘either/or’ question by quoting veteran Labour Leader James Maxton: “if you can’t ride two horses, you have no right to be in the bloody circus”.
Questioned over what Britain can do to engage the EU more with Commonwealth countries, Geoffrey Martin, an adviser to the Commonwealth Secretary-General and former Head of the European Commission in London stated that EU countries in the Commonwealth should lobby harder for the interests of their fellow Commonwealth members. This, he claimed, “would do more in a week than could be done with 5 years of diplomacy”.
A lively and informed event, panellists included Lord Howell of Guilford, former Minister of State in the FCO; Geoffrey Martin, Adviser to the Commonwealth Secretary-General; HEGarvin Nicholas, High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago; Michael Sippitt, Chairman of Clarkslegal LLP; VijayKrishnarayan, Director of the Commonwealth Foundation; Sunder Katwala, Director of British Future; Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Former Foreign Secretary; and Will Straw, Associate Director at IPPR.
The event closed with the High Commissioner for Malta, HE Joseph Zammit Tabona, reflecting on Malta's position in both the Commonwealth and the EU.