The Royal Commonwealth Society welcomes the new appointments to the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO). The new Secretary of State, Boris Johnson has previously made a number of comments on Commonwealth affairs during his previous role as Mayor of London. These range from calling for a free labour mobility zone between Australia, New Zealand, and the UK to a new post-study Commonwealth student visa for Indian nationals.
A thank you also goes to the outgoing Commonwealth Minister, Mr. Hugo Swire who we were pleased to work with on numerous occasions – notably our Foreign Office Roundtables. We offer a special welcome to Baroness Anelay who takes over the Commonwealth portfolio at the FCO. She already has a strong Commonwealth understanding through her previous role in the Lords on Commonwealth matters. We look forward to meeting with her and learning about her priorities in the lead up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in the UK in 2018.
That said, Baroness Anelay’s dual role with the Department for International Development (DFID) will ensure that those in this Department are made aware of its Commonwealth commitments with nine of the top 20 Overseas Development Assistance countries being Commonwealth members. DFID is also responsible for funding the Commonwealth Secretariat and other Commonwealth organisations. If the FCO and DFID responsibilities are connected through Baroness Anelay this will make a lot of sense to coordinate a single UK approach to Commonwealth institutions.
The FCO has taken the sensible approach of re-organising Ministers by geographic region to allow for a greater focus. However, there is a slight concern on the Commonwealth emphasis which the FCO describes just as an institution. Overlooking the nation-to-nation dimension of the Commonwealth and not using this connection when dealing with nations bilaterally it risks projecting the Commonwealth as just a multilateral body akin to the UN and not a network with specific ties between nations.
It also creates issues when say an Indian Minister arrives in London – would both Alok Sharma as Minister of the Asia and Pacific and Baroness Anelay as Commonwealth Minister meet the Minister to ensure the Commonwealth connection is affirmed.
A further apparent disconnect is with the new Department for International Trade and the possible link up with Commonwealth nations. As trade will become of increasing importance to Commonwealth countries with the UK it is hoped that the FCO will adapt accordingly. In general ensuring that the Commonwealth is considered across governmental departments should also be a priority.
The splitting of the Overseas Territories (OTs) across portfolios is also an interesting development with the Baroness overseeing the near total OTs, while Sir Alan Duncan, Minister of Europe and the Americas looking after the Falklands. At present it is also not clear who has the Gibraltar portfolio. However, it is assumed that Sir Alan’s Europe and defence and international security brief will mean coverage of Gibraltarian affairs.
In the current context of the UK working on a trade deal with the European Union and exploring and re-establishing its global links, the nations of the Commonwealth should feature heavily in this exercise. The Commonwealth retains two members in the EU – Cyprus and Malta which will ensure that the organisation is represented there, while the Society has also recently established a Brussels branch.
We reiterate our warm welcome to the new Ministers and encourage them to incorporate Commonwealth thinking when working on their briefs. We will always be happy to assist in your duties.
Menu photo: Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Photo credit: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office