Every two years, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) gathers to review the work and agenda of the group of 53 mostly former British colonies that are united by a common history. While Queen Elizabeth is the head of the Commonwealth, the 91-year-old monarch is eager to pass on the leadership responsibilities to her heir, Prince Charles. Indeed, he is heir too to 13 of those Commonwealth nations, a reflection of the historic ties that bind the United Kingdom with the other diverse members.
The 53 nations of the Commonwealth represent some of the most vast — Canada — and most populous — India — nations on Earth, as well as some of the smallest and most remote islands spread over the vast distances of the South Pacific. And that, in part, is why the Commonwealth group remains important now. It is an opportunity for all 53 Anglophile nations to share a common heritage and pursue common interests.
What’s significant now though is that the very fundamental nature of the Commonwealth may indeed change in the not-too-distant future. Queen Elizabeth is the only monarch most of the 2.4 billion people represented across the Commonwealth will have known, and the passing of the leadership represents a time for reflection, role and soul-searching. Is it anything more than an eclectic and diverse group from every possible corner of the globe, from Arctic to Antipodean islands, and from Canada to the Caribbean? Or has it the potential to become an organisation that offers the diverse group the ability to improve economic and trade ties?
With the UK about to leave the European Union (EU) in 11 months’ time, the London government would point to the potential offered by that diverse marketplace. Certainly, Brexiteers hold up the example of Canada and its Free Trade Agreement with the EU as being one that the United Kingdom should adapt in its future relationship with Brussels. Certainly, the UK government has been eager to talk trade and reach deals with India, and has significantly cut red tape between the two nations. Australia and New Zealand offer the potential for more trade and exploring common economic policies, but distance remains an intractable problem.
Historical differences and colonial pasts aside, the Commonwealth does offer a forum where education, health, scientific and societal issues can be addressed with a high degree of commonality. And certainly too, given the large number of small island states in its ranks, it will become an increasingly important forum where environment concerns will be raised.