In July 2020, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali, Rwanda was postponed due to COVID-19. The conference was rescheduled for 2021.
Perhaps unremarkably, the cancellation was not covered by Canadian news networks.
This could be due to the several other cancellations in 2020. Yet a few months later, another Commonwealth story entered the news cycle: the small, Caribbean island of Barbados announced its intention to become a republic in 2021 yet remain in the Commonwealth.
Canada’s role in the Commonwealth, if thought of at all, is often greeted with a shrug at best. This indifference boils down to a question of relevance.
It is the common refrain: What is the point of the Commonwealth?
Some view the forum as an outdated relic of a colonial past. While Canada marketed the body as a “values-based association”, others have complained about members’ disregard for human rights and rule of law. Former Prime Minister Harper even boycotted the 2013 CHOGM on those grounds.
Membership to this organization is not free either. In 2019-2020, Canada’s contribution totalled $10.39 million, placing them as the Commonwealth’s second-largest donor.
Is there a benefit to staying in the Commonwealth? Clearly, Barbados thought so.
The Commonwealth’s greatest advantage is its 54 member-states. Commonwealth members typically have historical ties to Britain and Westminster-style Parliaments. Otherwise, member-states range from wealthy, G20 countries to small, developing states. There are Canada’s allies: the United Kingdom (the UK), Australia, and New Zealand. There are economic powerhouses like India and Singapore, as well as emerging economies such as Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Malaysia. There is a collection of 32 small-states.
And through its membership, Canada has unique access to all of them.
It is cliché, but access is the diplomatic currency. And from a trade perspective, access opens opportunity.
Trade is one of the Commonwealth’s top priorities. With its status as the second-largest donor, Canada can be a driving force in redefining the Commonwealth’s purpose as a forum for building trade relationships. With only 54 states, there is less competition for securing meetings with potential trading partners. Shared language, governing styles, and values should make securing agreements and access for Canadian companies less challenging. Most important, Commonwealth trade is an avenue to diversify trade away from our largest trading partner, the United States, whose economy has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Yet Canada is not using its Commonwealth connections to their fullest extent. In 2018, only 5.6% of Canada’s exports went to Commonwealth states, with the UK making up around 3% on its own.
Canada treats the Commonwealth the same way people often treat gym memberships: paying for a membership and yet never fully using the access pass. It is that thing they think about cancelling every so often, yet never actually do.
Of course, ending Canada’s Commonwealth membership is more complicated than leaving the gym. There are no countries that have Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state while existing outside the Commonwealth. Since there is no precedent, leaving the Commonwealth may trigger a constitutional crisis. Canada would have to face becoming a republic or navigating uncharted waters in the international arena.
Realistically, Canada will not be leaving the Commonwealth anytime soon. The political will is not there, and constitutional overhaul is not going to be the number one priority in a global pandemic. So just like the gym, Canada might as well fully utilize its access if it is going to keep paying for the membership.
The answer to how Canada should approach the Commonwealth may then lie in trade diplomacy. The Commonwealth’s founding principles of human rights, rule of law, and democracy are also priority items on the Canadian foreign policy agenda. Canada can use its access and trade to promote these values, especially in developing economies.
Canada can also use Commonwealth trade to generate goodwill. One of the lessons learned from the recent United Nations Security Council (UNSC) campaign is that Canada cannot bank on the goodwill reserves that developed back in the 1990s. If Canada chooses to pursue future multilateral initiatives, it will need reliable supporters and backers. Increasing trade between Commonwealth nations will lead to closer economic integration, warmer relations, and more reliable international support as interests begin to align.
Then, of course, there are the obvious domestic benefits to trade: more capital, more jobs, more economic growth.
This is not a proposal for the creation of a Commonwealth free trade zone. The Commonwealth is too diverse geographically, historically, and economically for countries to agree to that today. But there are some steps that Canada can take to make the most out of its Commonwealth membership.
Secure agreements where possible. Trade agreements formalize and stabilize trading relations between parties. Starting in 2021, the UK will be free to negotiate trade deals outside the European Union structure. Canada has already signed a stop-gap treaty, signaling its intention to expand UK trade. The Conservative Party, the Official Opposition in the House of Commons, has suggested a Canada- Australia- New Zealand-UK (CANZUK) trade deal based on a shared history as Commonwealth members and allies. The new UK freedom will allow Canada to bring multilateral trade initiatives forward at Commonwealth conferences Backed by the major donors.
Focus on more than just allies. The Commonwealth is more than just the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Canada should use its Commonwealth connections to tap into rising economic powers in Asia and Africa, beginning with building relationships through high-level meetings at Commonwealth functions. Although comprehensive agreements are always preferable, small, sectoral agreements are better than none as these are economies that Canada just needs to get its foot in the door.
Promote trade and investment when possible. There does not need to be a trade agreement in place to promote trade. Including trade commissioners in Commonwealth delegations will convey the message that Canada is open and willing to trade. These trade commissioners can build networks and gather information to help Canadian companies gain access to other Commonwealth markets.
Don’t forget the small states. In one member, one vote systems, goodwill amongst small states can make or break initiatives. Canada should consider donating to small Commonwealth members to boost their economies. This will help build potential trading partners and markets for Canadian businesses while bringing small-state interests in line with Canada’s. Often times, small states find niche markets that may be of interest to Canadian investors. Canada’s efforts here could see increased support for Canadian initiatives and potentially privileged market access.
Like a gym membership, the Commonwealth will only be useful if Canada takes advantage of its access. It is time that Canada gave the Commonwealth a purpose. Trade will be an important part of Canada’s economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic. If access is fully utilized, Canada could see increased trade and prosperity at home and abroad.
Natalie Lopez is an MA Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her concentration is in Diplomacy and Foreign Policy.
Banner image of Ottawa, Canada by Robbie Palmer, courtesy of Unsplash.