President Cyril Ramaphosa will be attending the 25th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), accompanied by the Ministers of International Relations and Cooperation (Lindiwe Sisulu), Finance (Nhlanhla Nene) and Trade and Industry (Rob Davies). Their message to the CHOGM is that “South Africa is open for business and is an investment destination of choice”.
The CHOGM, themed “Towards a common future”, commenced on April 16 2018. It is the largest conference that the UK has ever hosted, and will bring together 53 nations.
This biennial summit has an optimistic ambition, the leaders will attend working sessions to discuss shared global challenges, engage in frank discussion, and set the course for future Commonwealth co-operation.
But this isn’t all. Meeting on a single day, the leaders will discuss shared agendas, forge important new partnerships and celebrate common interests. They are expected to deliver a plan for a future that is more sustainable, fair, secure, and prosperous.
Even 12 hours is not enough time for 53 countries to meet, mingle, and come up with solutions to global problems to ensure a better future. And none of this is possible without solving the ever-widening Gini coefficient. No doubt the one-day meeting will have a very tight agenda. Even so, allowing for introductions (30 minutes), teas and lunch (two hours), presentations of the four topics (one hour), five minutes for each of the 53 delegates (four-and-a-half hours), it comes to eight hours.
However, the UK’s main objective would surely be life after Brexit, which is less than 12 months away. This means that the UK will want to talk trade. The UK will also not miss the opportunity to advertise London as the financial centre of the world, and encourage investment into the UK. This may swamp any attempts by Commonwealth countries to advertise their strengths and entice foreign direct investment.
The United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community in January 1973, turning its back on the Commonwealth. With Brexit looming the Commonwealth countries should be concerned with negotiating new bilateral trade agreements with the UK. They should also bear in mind that whereas the UK will expect the Commonwealth countries to uphold the banner of free trade, this may not necessarily apply to the UK as it turns inwards and mounts a protective trade barrier, particularly with regard to agricultural goods.
Today, many Commonwealth countries are on a stronger footing to negotiate more favourable trade treaties with the UK. However, the UK will no doubt follow a pecking order in reestablishing a post-Brexit relationship with the Commonwealth countries, placing India, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand at the top. It is also debatable whether trade with the Commonwealth could ever replace trade with the EU. In today’s globalised world, it is not possible to separate trade and labour mobility, and some countries may demand work visas in exchange for opening up their markets.
Despite the heavy schedule and conflicting agendas, the conference will also include four forum events, to be held during the week. Representatives from business and civil society will join government heads:
- Commonwealth Business Forum: Increase intra-Commonwealth trade and reduce the cost of doing business between member countries.
- Commonwealth People’s Forum: Provide a platform for civil society to engage with leaders and influence policy, celebrate shared values and cultures and highlight diversity.
- Commonwealth Youth Forum: Afford the youth a voice by providing the opportunity to build cross-cultural connections and networks, identify and debate the challenges, and spearhead initiatives to influence decision makers.
- Commonwealth Women’s Forum: Deliberate on the global challenges faced by women and highlight the positive contributions women have made in the political, economic and societal arenas.
Opening the Commonwealth Business Forum on Monday, the prime minister, Theresa May, announced that the UK will be funding an all-new Commonwealth Standards Network. The UK will also fund a Trade Facilitation Programme. This will provide technical assistance to selected Commonwealth countries in implementing the World Trade Organisation’s Trade Facilitation Agreement.
Many of the Commonwealth countries are using the week to forge links. President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya opened the London Stock Exchange on Tuesday. He will also be meeting with the management of the LSE Group and will address investors on opportunities in Kenya.
According to the Times of India, the UK would like India to play a more important role in the Commonwealth, and Prime Minister Modi received a personal letter addressed to him by Queen Elizabeth II, the head of the Commonwealth.
However, South Africa is still singing the same song that it sung at the Davos World Economic Forum in January 2018. At such a packed, eventful summit with nations competing to get the UK’s individual attention, it will have to embark on some positive action to get anyone to listen.