Brexit, the Commonwealth and a world restored

Barring the Jews and the Chinese, the Europeans have been the most historical of people. I lived in Brussels for five years as Chief of Staff of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States. My job often involved engagement with the European Parliament, the Commission and with colleagues in the plush ambience of the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg.

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Europe has come a long way – from the Peace of Westphalia and the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 to the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Since the emergence of what the Germans term machstaaten, European wars have been among the bloodiest in human history.

During his first ever visit to China in July 1971, former United States Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, asked Premier Zhou En-Lai what he thought might be the lasting impact of the 1789 French Revolution. Zhou famously replied that, “it is too early to tell.” It might be too early to tell what the lasting achievements of the European integration experiment are. One thing though is clear; the new architecture of Europe has been a key vehicle in bringing an end to its centuries of strife and internecine struggles for power. The European Union has been a force for good in the world; a vehicle that has guaranteed stability and prosperity for its more than 512 million people.

Britain was there at the beginning of creation. War-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill had visited America and various parts of the Old Continent canvassing for European unity. But in the last minute, Britain pulled out.

When confronted about this volte-face, the old fox replied that he was “talking about them, not us”. When Britain eventually changed her mind and applied for membership in the 1960s, Charles de Gaulle of France would not hear of it. He said presciently that Perfidious Albion could never fully be trusted. Britain eventually joined in 1973 but only after de Gaulle had left the scene.

Economists would continue to debate the benefits and costs of Britain’s membership of the European Union. There is no doubt that the bigger European market and the customs union offered enormous opportunities for British industry and trade. London has been the de facto financial capital of Europe, with more than US$2.4 trillion passing through the city every day. Some 1.3 million Britons live and work in Europe, as contrasted with 3.8 million European Union immigrants that are currently resident in the British Isles.

But there have been costs. Ever since Baroness Thatcher, the British have always chafed at the enormous capital they have had to expend on their assessed contributions to the European Union annual budget. Britain is not part of the European Union Schengen immigration regime and has also opted out of the Euro. In an infamous debacle that came to be known as Black Wednesday, the British pound fell out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM); making hedge funds trader, George Soros a whopping profit of £1 billion in a single day! The British are feeling increasingly besieged by the relentless flood of immigrants from Eastern Europe and the prospects of refugees from Syria and other trouble spots, with all the implications for national security.

The rather clumsy word “Brexit” has gained currency in the lexicon of English political rhetoric. Nobody foresaw that disentangling Britain from Europe was going to be that complicated. European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker describes it as “an amputation.”  There is no such thing as a happy divorce. The controversy over terms and conditions of a settlement with Brussels has rocked government and parliament. The pound sterling has taken a hit while stock markets have gyrated turbulently. According to the time-table, a deal would have to be reached by March 29, unless Brussels decides to extend the deadline. The opposition Labour Party, led by stalwarts such as former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, are hoping for another referendum. But I have my doubts. Britain has crossed the proverbial rubicon. And even if it were possible to change the hand of the clock, they would never be trusted and would forever be condemned to playing second fiddle in the European power equation.

Europe’s loss would be the Commonwealth’s gain. Marlborough House, the seat of the Commonwealth Secretariat, is a plush Edwardian building adorned with beautiful wall paintings of the great exploits of its first occupant, the Duke of Marlborough. The Commonwealth of Nations is an organisation of 53 sovereign states with a combined population of 2.4 billion people. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of the Commonwealth; an organisation that prides itself in being based on universal values of democracy, the rule of law and internationalism. Unlike other international organisations, it is not based on treaty law. Members are signatories to its Charter by which they are bound by ethical and moral obligations. During their biennial meetings known as CHOGM, the Heads of State and Government reach collective decisions based on the principle of consensus. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) plays an important role in crisis management while the Secretary-General uses her good offices in ways that enhance confidence-building and promotion of peace, democracy and good governance. The secretariat comprises some 300 odd international staff. Unfortunately, funding for the annual budget has declined from a peak of £51.9 million in 2012 to £32.3 million in 2018.

Paradoxically, what appears to be its weakness is also its strength. The Commonwealth often punches well above its actual weight. The organisation played a central role in decolonisation in countries such as Zimbabwe and South Africa and in restoring hope to war-torn countries such as Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone. The Commonwealth remains one of the most respected voices in international politics.

Affiliates such as the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC) and the Commonwealth Youth Fund (CYF) are making important contributions to human development. Remarkably, countries such as Mozambique and Rwanda that have no direct historical links to Britain have joined the club. A few more are considering joining.

I am persuaded that it is in Britain’s national interest to bolster the Commonwealth as a platform to re-engage with a wider world, post-Brexit.

In 1973, when Britain acceded to the European Economic Community (EEC) as it then was, it required unbundling arrangements such as the Commonwealth System of Trade Preferences and the Sterling Area.

It would make logical sense to resurrect some of those arrangements where feasible. The post-war international order seems to be unravelling.

Under President Donald Trump, the United States seems to be retreating from multilateralism. The Atlantic Alliance is facing one of its severest tests in living memory. Emmanuel Macron of France has proposed that Europe should consider building its own separate regional security architecture; including a system of nuclear deterrence outside NATO.

All of this means that the Commonwealth will increasingly be called upon to serve as the catalyst for a renewed internationalism. I daresay that if the Commonwealth had not existed it would have been necessary to invent it. In order to play its role more effectively, the organisation will have to be reinvented as a knowledge institution with a formidable reservoir of intellectual capital imbued with a can-do spirit. Study groups should be created to begin work on major initiatives to boost trade, investments and financial cooperation.

Britain will have an important role to play in a rejuvenated Commonwealth. Under the leadership of its Secretary General Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, the Commonwealth has laid out an ambitious blueprint for the coming years. Its strategic priorities are anchored on four cardinal areas: sustainable development and protection of the marine environment; recognition of small and vulnerable states and their development challenges; inclusion of young people and civil society, human rights and dignity, good governance, justice and peace. Like they say of the Church of England; the Commonwealth has room for everyone.

The Commonwealth may well be the last hope of those who genuinely believe in a world governed by cooperation, international law, solidarity, freedom and international social justice. It is a mission that demands our support; working together and building a new world that guarantees a peaceful and prosperous future for all our peoples.