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Brexit, global power and vulnerability in the Commonwealth

Britain’s free-trade driven post-EU ambitions pose ‘grave consequences for medium and small Commonwealth countries,’ explains Dr Kevin Barker. ‘Caribbean and Pacific states will need to swim against the anti-integration ideological tide that secured victory for Brexit by shoring up their own regional integration movements and speaking to Britain in one voice.  

Brexit re-energised British (English) nationalism, underpinned, and at the same time contradicted, by nostalgia for preeminent global influence. Some would brand this unlikely combination ‘nostalgia for Empire’ – little Britain can extend itself and prosper while keeping the undesirable effects of its outward reach offshore.

Contrary to the standard explanation of Brexit, that this vote exposes Britain’s wish to set itself free in order to make its own decisions as a sovereign state, the real anchor of Brexit discourse is global power. Britain’s architecture of global power is already grounded in the Commonwealth, which it leads only by virtue of its historical position as a very successful imperial power.

The Commonwealth consists of 53 independent countries (mainly former British colonies), stretched across disparate regions of the world, encompassing the spirited unevenness of globalisation – developed, developing and underdeveloped. On the basis of this prior imperial investment in cultural, legal, political and economic institutional heritage, Brexit’s global foundation rests on the residues of the British Empire.

The Commonwealth is Brexit’s leverage, with significant and varied implications for its differently positioned regional parts. To take stock of the less pleasant side of the exercise of global power, as Britain steps out into the world with a heightened sense of (self-imposed) vulnerability, the extant longstanding natural and imposed vulnerabilities of small developing states, such as those in the Caribbean and the Pacific, come into sharp focus.

Brexit unsettles the space in which these vulnerabilities are managed. Developing countries in the Commonwealth also fall within a more prominent mechanism set up to reshape the infrastructure of western European empires, as Europe remapped itself and consolidated its boundaries as the European Union.

The current output of that exercise is the Cotonou Partnership Agreement signed in 2000 to regulate trade and development partnerships between the EU and 79 states in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (the ACP Group of States). This mechanism, though designed materially to coordinate trade and aid between the EU and the legacies of empire, is linked to a matrix of accountability in the form of political values, notably human rights, democracy and the rule of law. In other words, persistent global paternalism and tutelage defined the power relations between the EU and its other world, a state of affairs in which Brexit discourse is heavily invested.

Though the Cotonou Partnership Agreement is, by design, due to end in 2020, the timing with Brexit’s invocation of the Commonwealth heightens the sense of unease that surrounds the renegotiation of trade and development arrangements among deeply unequal, regionally divergent partners. Given the number of Commonwealth countries that are also part of the ACP, Brexit’s foundation is even more precarious.

Unlike the more prosperous members of the Commonwealth (Canada, Australia, New Zealand – all former settler colonies), it is the medium and small members that will test the consequences of Brexit. As the pound sterling weakens, those in the Caribbean belt, for instance, expect a significant slowdown in remittance flows and fewer tourist arrivals, key drivers of their fragile economies. To compound anxieties even further, in the eventual absence of Britain from the EU, the Caribbean region, along with those in Africa and the Pacific, could lose an ally in the renegotiation of a successor ACP-EU partnership agreement.

A new agreement could be shaped to place ACP countries on course to compete on equal footing with the big guns. Set adrift in more choppy seas, Brexit may hand Britain a stronger, more direct exercise of geo-political and economic clout over ACP countries. Without the market size of India or resource-rich African states such as Nigeria, Caribbean and Pacific states face less than ideal bilateral overtures from Britain post-Brexit.

What is certain is that the Commonwealth would have to be reconfigured if it is to respond equitably to Britain’s free-trade driven post-EU ambitions: the effects will certainly be uneven, with grave consequences for medium and small members. Caribbean and Pacific states will need to swim against the anti-integration ideological tide that secured victory for Brexit by shoring up their own regional integration movements and speaking to Britain in one voice.

Dr Kevin Barker is an associate fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study (SAS), and senior lecturer in law and criminology at the University of Suffolk. His research interests cover the broad terrain of law in postcolonial societies and penal law and policy in the British Commonwealth.

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