My Lords, I rise with nostalgia. My first endeavour as a new boy in your Lordships’ House was to table a Motion calling attention to the importance of the Commonwealth. I warmly encourage closer working relationships with the Commonwealth, noting that the UK enjoys reciprocally beneficial membership of this invaluable intergovernmental organisation of, as the Minister reminded us, more than 2 billion people in 52 countries spanning six continents.
The UK has received unstinting support over the decades—including in military conflicts, disaster relief and its role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council—from the Commonwealth family of nations. Our distinguished Commonwealth partner country, Malta—now president of the Council of the European Union—hosted the most recent Heads of Government meeting in 2015, exploring the theme of “The Commonwealth: Adding Global Value”. It was a timely and relevant theme for this leading Commonwealth country—ours—as we stake out the Brexit ground. We, too, must seek to add value globally.
When we joined the EEC in 1973, our formal bilateral trade, aid and investment relations with Commonwealth countries—the Commonwealth preferences scheme—ended. Picking up a theme of the Minister, subsequently, under the Lomé convention, the Cotonou agreement and the economic partnership agreements, Commonwealth trade was notionally with the EU but headed primarily for British markets.
Political hay has sometimes been made of punishment that the UK might receive because of our vote in the recent referendum. Will any such punishment extend to our Commonwealth partners? Thirty-six of them are small countries with small markets lacking the negotiating clout to fight their corner with the Commission. Will Malta and Cyprus, joint EU and Commonwealth members, help them to consolidate their position, or will they be hampered by their own small state status? It is possible—I put this thought in the minds of government negotiators—that we can create a Commonwealth free trade area compliant with WTO rules. However, that would require considerable political will and expertise to modify existing rules of other customs unions to which members may also belong.
There is both an economic and a moral imperative to address this issue during the impending Brexit negotiations and beyond. Media reports sometimes dismiss Commonwealth trade potential, yet intra-Commonwealth trade could reach US $1 trillion by 2020, as the Minister also reminded us.
Opportunities await us. Commonwealth target growth sectors are financial services, technology, infrastructure, healthcare, tourism and sustainability. We in the UK are leaders in each and every one of those fields. Consider the welcome impact we could have in ensuring greater access to green technologies across the Commonwealth, particularly in areas plagued by natural disasters and sea level rise attributable to climate change.
Our expertise in the field of education is well recognised, as are the financial, research and cultural contributions to our country of increased numbers of international students and faculty—in significant numbers, from Commonwealth countries. Not only can this sector be enhanced here at home, but there is also significant comparative advantage for exports of technology, expertise and institution-building skills.
There exists much scope for our SMEs to enter and thrive in those Commonwealth markets, with access and performance eased by harmonised legal, regulatory and language frameworks—a happy circumstance described as “the Commonwealth advantage”. Many SMEs have not exported to the EU in part because of bureaucratic burden. They could and should now seize every opportunity offered for trade within the Commonwealth. I welcome the inaugural Trade Ministers meeting and the recognition of the timely benefits of improved intra-Commonwealth trade, industry and investment. The secretariat and the CFTC are well placed to co-ordinate Commonwealth business requests centrally, while Her Majesty’s Government can officially support Commonwealth development finance initiatives, such as the trade finance facility, that dovetail with their own. That is mutually beneficial.
Why is it important to engage at this level? There is far more at stake here than just the trade numbers, attractive though they are. The Prime Minister of Malta, speaking to Heads of Government at the most recent CHOGM, reminded us of the Commonwealth’s youth who, just like ours, can easily become aggrieved by being out of the loop, alienated by lack of respect, a poor standard of living and unemployment—and as easily seduced by extremist propaganda. Prime Minister Muscat pointed out:
“Terrorists are more scared of well-educated girls and boys who manage to get a good job than they will ever be of any army”.
Look no further than to the heartrending affair in Nigeria’s north-east.
We therefore have a shared interest in seeking to improve education and job opportunities for our young at home and, importantly, across the Commonwealth. To do so would assist in reducing migration—irregular or otherwise—by mitigating the conditions propelling peoples to flee their home countries. In turn, perilous journeys to the European mainland could be reduced, far right policies would have less traction and people traffickers would be put out of business. That is a win-win situation, well within our grasp.
I conclude, as I did in 1994, with the wisdom of Mr Arnold Smith, the first Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, when he remarked:
“100 years from now, I suggest, historians will consider the Commonwealth the greatest of all Britain’s contributions to man’s social and political history”.
I trust that today, the message will travel Commonwealth-wide: your partner and friend is back.