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Commonwealth’s future - Martin Scicluna

Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Malta has been so taken up with navel-gazing over the last seven months that little attention has been paid to the 2018 Commonwealth heads of government biennial meeting which took place in London seven weeks ago.

The Commonwealth is of importance to Malta. Despite our small size we have made serious contributions to its evolution through our chairmanship of the heads of government meetings in 2005 under Lawrence Gonzi and in 2016 under Joseph Muscat. As an EU member, with an advanced economy and well-educated workforce, the Commonwealth enables us to punch well above our weight.

The Commonwealth was designed as a way of retaining ties with the remnants of colonial times. It is indeed a multinational body that has risen from the ashes of the British Empire. It worked for a while by smoothing the path to independence of former colonies (Malta among them) and demonstrating that an imperial power could exercise influence without imposing itself on them. Sixteen members still recognise Queen Elizabeth as their head of state.

The Commonwealth accounts for a third of the world’s population, a fifth of the global land surface and a quarter of the United Nation’s membership. Yet it has struggled to define a 21st century mission, to engage young people and to influence international debate.

Its charter commits it to uphold democracy, human rights, international peace and security, freedom of expression, the rule of law and so on. Its member states may be imperfect, but at least the Commonwealth tries to hold offenders to account if they cross red lines.

In 1995, it suspended Nigeria after it executed nine environmentalists. In 2002, it suspended Zimbabwe (now applying to return). In 2006 and 2009 it suspended Fiji after a military coup. And in 1999 and 2007, it suspended Pakistan for imposing dictatorial powers. 

Despite its name, the organisation does not represent what could be termed a set of common values. Some members outlaw homosexuality. Others have a heavy-handed approach to the press or are ruled by presidents-for-life.

Nor do many members live up to the “wealth” part of commonwealth, making claims by some in Britain that enhanced trade with the Commonwealth after Brexit would help compensate for lost trade with the EU a trifle disingenuous (British trade with Belgium outstrips that with Canada and India combined).

The meeting this year had as its theme the nebulous title, Towards a Common Future. Its discussions and final communique focused on “youth empowerment, as well as gender equality”. It emphasised its position as a long-standing “advocate for the causes of small states” and underlined the Commonwealth’s strength in “collaboration among its member countries [and], people-to-people organisations”.

The question of who should succeed the 92-year-old Queen as head of the Commonwealth after her death undoubtedly dominated the meeting, and was effectively decided. The Prince of Wales, who has been travelling around Commonwealth countries with renewed enthusiasm, has been nominated as the next head of the Commonwealth, indicating that the monarchy is still regarded as a unifying factor because it stands above the political fray.

The Commonwealth will need to find a stronger voice against corruption, censorship and human rights abuses by its own members

What of the future? The Commonwealth is essentially a vehicle of soft power. Fifty-three nations can still play a valuable role in deploying such soft power. The challenge now is to make it relevant when many of its predominantly Asian and African members already have direct experience of a much more hard-nosed model of soft power as practised by China as it pours cash into new ports, railways, hydropower and industrial projects under guise of its “One Belt, One Road” trade initiative. 

One area – in which Malta has already been directly involved – is that the Commonwealth can be digitised and transformed into a laboratory for smart, efficiently utilised development aid.

The organisation has also been a vocal lobbyist on climate change. But it will need to find a stronger voice against corruption, censorship and human rights abuses by its own members. It needs to become a club with a clear purpose and enforceable rules. This is probably the only way that it can deserve to survive.

Increasingly, the key to the Commonwealth’s long-term future probably now lies with India. The presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in London in April was something of a diplomatic coup. He was the first Indian Prime Minister to attend the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in a decade. As a proud Hindu nationalist who rankles at the role Britain played in India’s colonial past, he might have been expected to be naturally hostile to an organisation forged from the embers of empire.

But Modi is looking forwards, not backwards. To an election campaign next year to be fought on a platform of economic growth and conspicuous patriotism. He is also looking much further into the future to a time when the Commonwealth has been reinvented with India at its forefront.

After decades of neglect, the Commonwealth is ripe for reinvention, with a renewed focus on trade and with a muscular new role earmarked by India (which constitutes 55 per cent of the Commonwealth’s 2.3 billion people and accounts for 26 per cent of its internal trade).

Such a revamp would hand India something it truly desires: a mechanism to counter the influence of China. At present, China is winning the arch-rivals’ war for political and economic dominance and is extending its influence even in India’s own backyard.

Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are increasingly under China’s spell as it pours cash into new ports, railways and other industrial projects.

The meeting in London in April was the last of its kind that the Queen will host. It was, in effect, an occasion to celebrate her long leadership. She has shepherded the Commonwealth for the last 69 years and has set the example –  which it is hoped Prince Charles will follow –  of speaking her mind seldom, guardedly and almost always in private. If Charles wants the Commonwealth to last, he should remember that in his position less is more and opinion is anathema.

Unless the Commonwealth can be reinvigorated by a burgeoning India, whose Prime Minister – a strong advocate of international free trade – sees it as important to his fledgling superpower’s long-term interests, there is a danger that it could become irrelevant.

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