With Brexit on the horizon, Chief Operating Officer of the Royal Commonwealth Society Annette Prandzioch says that interest in the inter-governmental organisation of 52 states is greater than ever
Commonwealth Day is an annual and special celebration for citizens of the Commonwealth as well as a particularly busy time for The Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS). The RCS organises the Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey, the UK’s largest multi-faith event, in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen and other members of the Royal Family, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, the UK Prime Minister, High Commissioners and a number of Ambassadors, dignitaries from across the Commonwealth and some 800 school children and young people. This year’s service on Monday 13 March, which was broadcast live on BBC One, was no exception.
The service was preceded by The Queen’s Baton Relay launch in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace in glorious sunshine, marking the start of the Baton’s journey to the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. The Baton was passed by The Queen, who placed her personal message inside, to famous athletic track cycling rivals Anna Meares OAM from Australia and Britain’s Victoria Pendleton CBE. Australian musician, Cody Simpson, then jumped with the Baton into a colourful Kombi van, together with a surfboard on top. From there it was a short journey to Westminster Abbey, where the Baton joined the procession into the Abbey to the High Altar, carried by UK athlete Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill DBE.
The service highlighted the 2017 Commonwealth theme ‘A Peace-building Commonwealth,’ with a speech given by the Prime Minister of Malta, the Hon Dr Joseph Muscat MP, who holds the Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth, and included a variety of global talent from Maltese poet Dr Immanuel Mifsud, to Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman.
The Commonwealth continued its celebration the following day with the High Commissioners’ Banquet at the Guildhall, jointly hosted by the RCS and the City of London Corporation. The Queen’s Baton made a further appearance at the Banquet next to the Premier of Queensland, the Hon Annastacia Palaszcuk MP, who spoke at the reception about the opportunities the Games opened for trade as well as sport for her state and the wider Commonwealth.
In after dinner speeches, Lord Howell of Guildford, President of The Royal Commonwealth Society, spoke about the path ahead in a difficult global situation: “In this stormy context, I believe the Commonwealth is on the pathway to new relevance, new purpose and new prosperity. My country, the United Kingdom, will play its part and draw strength from its Commonwealth friends and allies as we build our modern relationship with a reformed European Union.”
Prime Minister Muscat commented that: “Whilst the European Union and the Commonwealth are very distinct bodies, they nevertheless have much to offer each other in terms of economic opportunities. The Commonwealth has the potential to be a powerful voice in international trade negotiations, especially through its unique and inherent trade advantage.”
Currently Malta, of course, holds the EU presidency as well as being the Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth, thereby giving its Prime Minister a unique global perspective at this important crossroads for Europe. The Commonwealth torch in the EU will be carried forward by Malta and Cyprus when the UK leaves. The RCS seeks to encourage the Commonwealth’s strengthening influence in Brussels and its critical bridging role with the EU – a role that the UK currently plays so well – and which will fall to Malta and Cyprus. To this end, the RCS is opening a branch in Cyprus (there are currently some 60 branches across the Commonwealth but also in other countries such as Ireland, Finland – as part of a Nordic Baltic Hub – and Hong Kong). The RCS is also strongly supportive of the establishment of a memorandum of understanding between the EU and the Commonwealth. There are a number of such agreements between the EU and other international bodies.
Commonwealth Day was preceded by the first ever meeting of Commonwealth Trade Ministers in London during the preceding week. In the lead-up to this meeting, the RCS together with the public relations agency PLMR commissioned the polling of 500 UK business leaders with the question: ‘Which Commonwealth nations or regions do you think the government should prioritise to be the most important trading partner for the UK in the post-Brexit environment?’
The results were revealing: 90 per cent of businesses consider that the Government should prioritise trade with Australia. Canada and Singapore are a joint second priority for business leaders at 82 per cent. New Zealand and India came in as third and fourth priorities at 79 per cent and 72 per cent respectively, while South Africa was fifth at 70 per cent. In addition, over 50 per cent of British businesses said they would want the UK government to prioritise trade with Malaysia. 40 per cent identified Kenya as a key market, while almost one third of businesses see the Commonwealth Caribbean region as an important market.
The RCS provided complementary polling of its branches across the Commonwealth and its Associate Fellows, a network of young leaders. The results showed that 79 per cent of respondents agree or strongly agree with the proposition that their country should create a trade agreement with the UK within the next two years post-Brexit.
This upsurge of interest in all matters Commonwealth is set to continue with focus now turning to the Commonwealth Summit of 2018, which will mark the beginning of the UK holding the Commonwealth Chair-in-office until 2020. The UK government announced on Commonwealth Day that the Summit would be held in April 2018 in the Royal Palaces in London and Windsor Castle. This will represent a golden global opportunity at a time of unique change, in the presence of HM The Queen who is Head of the Commonwealth, to forge stronger ties between Commonwealth countries.