The Commonwealth – A Lesson for the EU

The Commonwealth of Nations (formerly known as the British Commonwealth), is an intergovernmental organisation of fifty-four independent member states.

Two billion people, one third of the world’s population, live in the Commonwealth, of which one half are under the age of 25 years. It does not feel the need for a common currency. In Britain, membership costs 20p per head per annum compared to £50 per head for EU membership (before including the costs of bailing out bankrupt EU nations).

The member states cooperate within a framework of common values and goals which include: the promotion of democracy, human rights, good governance, the rule of law, individual liberty, egalitarianism, free trade, multilateralism, and world peace. The Commonwealth is not a political union, but an intergovernmental organisation through which countries with diverse social, political, and economic backgrounds are regarded as equal in status.

The Commonwealth is a forum for a number of non-governmental organisations, collectively known as the Commonwealth Family, which are fostered through the intergovernmental Commonwealth Foundation. The Commonwealth Games, the Commonwealth’s most visible activity, are a product of one of these organisations. These organisations strengthen the shared culture of the Commonwealth, which extends through common sports, literary heritage, and political and legal practices. Due to this, Commonwealth countries are not considered to be “foreign” to one another. Reflecting this, diplomatic missions between Commonwealth countries are designated as High Commissions rather than embassies.

Under that formula of the London Declaration, Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of the Commonwealth, a title that is currently individually shared with that of Commonwealth realms (sixteen members who recognise the Queen as their head of state.) However, when the monarch dies, the successor to the crown does not automatically become Head of the Commonwealth. The position is symbolic: representing the free association of independent members.

The Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles was a declaration issued by the assembled Heads of Government of the Commonwealth of Nations, setting out the core political values that would form the main part of the Commonwealth’s membership criteria. The Declaration was issued in Singapore on 22 January 1971 at the conclusion of the first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Along with the Harare Declaration, issued in 1991, it is considered one of the two most important documents to the Commonwealth’s uncodified constitution.

The declaration opens with a description of the Commonwealth’s identity, the relationship between the organisation and its members, and its fundamental goals:

“The Commonwealth of Nations is a voluntary association of independent sovereign states, each responsible for its own policies, consulting and co-operating in the common interests of their peoples and in the promotion of international understanding and world peace.”

The next ten articles in turn detail some of the core political principles of the Commonwealth. These include (in the order in which they are mentioned): world peace and support for the United Nations; individual liberty and egalitarianism; the eradication of poverty, ignorance, disease, and economic inequality; free trade; institutional cooperation; multilateralism; and the rejection of international coercion.

These are summed up in the final article, which serves as a touchstone for Commonwealth principles:

“These relationships we intend to foster and extend, for we believe that our multi-national association can expand human understanding and understanding among nations, assist in the elimination of discrimination based on differences of race, colour or creed, maintain and strengthen personal liberty, contribute to the enrichment of life for all, and provide a powerful influence for peace among nations.”

In recent years attempts have been made to sideline the Commonwealth in favour of relationships with the EU and the US, most notably by Tony Blair who failed to mention it even once in his myopic biography. Bizarrely, in thirteen years of his and Gordon Brown’s New Labour government, not a single British foreign secretary visited Australia or New Zealand, two of the UK’s oldest and closest Commonwealth allies.

Collated by Robert Wilkin.

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