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Commonwealth trade post-Brexit: ‘Everything is to play for’

26 May 2017

High commissioners from Australia, Canada and India joined Secretary-General Patricia Scotland at a financial services conference in London today to offer an upbeat assessment on future trade prospects in the Commonwealth.

“I’m very optimistic,” declared Secretary-General Scotland as she outlined the ‘Commonwealth advantage’ in trade. “This family of nations has many things in common – common language, common law, common institutions, common parliamentary structures.”

As a result, the cost of doing business between Commonwealth countries is on average 19 percent cheaper than between non-member countries, she said, citing research and anaylsis by the Commonwealth Secretariat.

The City Week conference on Friday 26 May 2017 brought together policy-makers and industry representatives to consider the future of financial markets. The high-level guests were participating on a panel on the potential for trade deals between Commonwealth countries.

Trade and investment in the Commonwealth could be stimulated further if the United Kingdom adopts a “proactive trade policy” following its exit of the European Union, the Secretary-General said.

“If Brexit allows the United Kingdom to have a more proactive trade policy, the possibilities of the UK to effectively contribute to enhanced trade flows involving other Commonwealth members is really there. Everything is to play for.”

The conference comes ahead of the first India-Commonwealth Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) trade summit. Three hundred Indian firms and more than 100 businesses from other countries, together with policy-makers, will be in Delhi on 30 and 31 May 2017.

India’s high commissioner to the UK, Y.K. Sinha, told the City Week conference that he is confident that a free trade agreement can be agreed between the UK and India following Brexit. “The opportunities for a deal with the UK are very bright, particularly since there is political will on both sides,” he said.

Janice Charette, Canada’s high commissioner to the UK, stressed the importance of “open markets and free trade as a critical tool for creating the conditions for inclusive growth, prosperity and security.

“As the Secretary-General likes to say, we’re going to put the ‘wealth’ into the Commonwealth. We have huge opportunity in working with the Commonwealth Secretariat to reinforce the foundations that are important for free trade and open markets for all countries to benefit.”

The Canadian high commissioner added that she supported the Commonwealth Secretariat’s work to help countries “achieve and expand the Commonwealth advantage” by adopting legal instruments, the rule of law, effective regulatory systems and transparency in democratic processes. “There is a huge opportunity for us to come together,” she added.

Growth in the Commonwealth has accelerated over the past two decades, recording five per cent in 2015 compared to less than two per cent in the European Union. Since 2005 the share of the Commonwealth in the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) has increased and has overtaken the share of the EU.

Hugo Swire, Deputy Chairman of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, said he was hugely optimistic about the potential for increasing trade between Commonwealth countries, many of which are some of the fastest growing economies in the world.

“This is not a time to think protectionist. This is a time to go out to new markets and forge new relationships.”

But the former UK foreign minister added it is important that small and medium businesses (SMEs) are better equipped to trade. “What we have to do in the UK and around the world is to help our SMEs to up their game. Free trade deals are great but if you don’t have businesses doing business with one other, there is no trade.”

It was a sentiment shared by Australia’s high commissioner to the UK, Alexander Downer, who gave his backing to the Commonwealth Secretariat’s efforts to enhance trade among its member countries. “What the Commonwealth can do is help countries to gear themselves up for greater trade interaction,” he said.

Mr Swire added, “If you judge a club by the length of the queue of those seeking membership of it, then the Commonwealth is in robust health.”