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Brexit And The Commonwealth: Where Are We Three Years On?

Since leaving the European Union, the UK has begun to shift its priorities toward rekindling tried and tested links with the Commonwealth family. The rekindling of UK-Commonwealth relations over such a short stretch of time is proof that prioritising the Commonwealth in Britain’s trade and security policy is the right approach.

Whether it be impressive trade agreements, from Canada to Cameroon, or renewed security cooperation with Australia, the future of UK-Commonwealth relations should be cause for optimism. Our success stories so far need to be amplified by all advocates of closer Commonwealth relations. Further consolidation of these ties is not an opportunity that Britain can afford to squander. With new members who have no historic links to the UK vying to join the Commonwealth, following the example of new partners Gabon and Togo who joined in 2022, the opportunities for closer diplomatic and security relations are clearer than ever and we must be ambitious in developing our partnerships as Britain looks outward towards our Commonwealth family again.

Since 2020, UK-Commonwealth trade has been a particular triumph. At the CHOGM 2022, Baroness Scotland announced that UK-Commonwealth trade had reached a value of $700 billion and set the aspirational target of $2 trillion in value by 2030. In 2022, British exports to the Commonwealth reached a 15-year high, overtaking our trade with Germany, the Netherlands and Iceland in monetary value (£31.6 Billion). Commonwealth imports to the UK are also growing, bucking a recent trend in intra-Commonwealth trade.

The landmark UK-Australia free trade agreement has vindicated the UK’s ability to negotiate excellent trade deals without the backing of the European Union. The deal, valued at £10.4 billion, secured impressive visa and employment rights for UK citizens as well as granting Australian businesses a seven-fold increase in tariff-free access to UK markets.

India too has proved a very recent success with a February 2023 agreement for UK companies AirBus and Rolls Royce to provide new aircraft to India. This deal is the first of its kind since the UK has recommitted to its relationship with the Commonwealth and is set to add billions to the UK economy while creating high-skilled jobs British workers. The UK has a crucial role to play in meeting the $2 trillion intra-Commonwealth trade target and must continue its excellent start in order to see this goal met.

Commonwealth security cooperation has also improved markedly since Brexit. The pioneering AUKUS security deal is proof of the UK's ability to develop closer security cooperation with our Commonwealth partners and use those links as a springboard for secure the UK's important place in the global security landscape. The deal, announced in 2021, sees the UK aiding Australia in developing nuclear-capable submarines, in exchange for enhanced cooperation in a range of high-tech areas, from cybersecurity and artificial intelligence to hypersonic warfare.

There is of course still more to be done. In all areas of cooperation from trade, security and diplomacy, Britain should continue to support links with the Commonwealth and be ambitious in the projects we undertake. The UK has already committed to supporting the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in 2022 in order to support the African Commonwealth in bringing trade liberalisation and economic growth to Africa. The AfCFTA is expected to bring 30 million Africans out of poverty and almost double continental African trade.

The UK has a duty to our Commonwealth partners to support aspirational projects like this with our new-found diplomatic flexibility, a part of the move towards a Global Britain. We already have proof of concept, in the shape of smaller successful projects like the 2022 South Africa deal, unlocking major investment for UK companies into infrastructure projects and hydrogen power.

2023 should also be the year of a comprehensive India/UK free trade agreement. The opportunity is ripe to build upon the progress of our Rolls Royce/Airbus deal. The recent round of negotiations concluded on an optimistic note, with both sides aiming to get a deal done by the end of this year.

Three years on from Brexit, the future of UK-Commonwealth relations shines bright. From signing trade deals, deepening security ties, and supporting economic development in partners beyond Europe, the UK has much to gain from utilising our Commonwealth family. Groups like the Centre for Commonwealth Affairs are needed now more than ever to ensure policymakers understand the scale of the opportunity that global Britain cannot afford to miss. The UK should continue to work with our Commonwealth family to make the world a freer, safer, and more prosperous place; the progress we have made so far is just a taste of what we can achieve together.

It is high time to use this momentum to unleash a new golden era of Commonwealth cooperation and prosperity - all that is required is the will and the work to make this a reality. Mackenzie France is a history student at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. He serves as Deputy Director of Blue Beyond, a grassroots think-tank for Young Conservatives, and is a Policy Fellow at the Pinsker Centre.

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