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09 Mar 2017

UK “Empire 2.0” strikes trade deals with the Commonwealth

“Empire 2.0” is the name which Whitehall officials use to describe the move for the creation of new trade links between Great Britain and the Commonwealth countries. Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, aims to promote free trade deals between the United Kingdom and the 52 countries of the Commonwealth of Nations, but the codename Empire 2.0 raised criticism among people who believe it can’t be used as a positive slogan in the former colonies of Britain.

Fox will attend meetings, today and tomorrow, in London with representatives from the Commonwealth countries and he is expected to promise his counterparts that the UK’s intention is to boost the trade links after Brexit and to improve relationships as much as possible. Fox’s secondary objective is to start working closely, with the African ministers, on the creation of an African free trade zone that will cover 26 countries from South Africa to Egypt. Whitehall officials seem to be giving priority to this project and say that the target, for this deal, is to be signed in Spring 2018, when the UK is going to host the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in London.

Patricia Scotland, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, said in an interview for the Financial Times that “Brexit presents new opportunities. It is true that we had prioritised our trade relations with the European Union, but now we have a diamond here and we are not picking it up”. Today’s event is organised by the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (CWEIC), which is a group consisting of large corporations like Rolls Royce, JCB and Gem Diamonds.

Despite the fact that the idea of signing deals with some of the UK allies sounds nice, not all of the government officials are thrilled to bits. Sceptics say that they have serious doubts over how effective trade with the Commonwealth will be in compensating for the affected EU trade. They disagree because, although the Commonwealth is a 52-member group of countries, they are spread across the world, making trade difficult. Steve Peers, a professor in EU law and human rights law, said that it is very unlikely that, after Brexit, the UK would be able to negotiate more favourable deals with this group of countries. The reason that he suggested is that “the EU has already made trade deals with 64% of the Commonwealth members and prepares new deals with 26%”.

Joan McAlpine, a member of the Scottish Parliament, accused May’s government of having delusions about planning the UK’s life outside of the EU. McAlpine added that “there is no need to rebuild the empire, we have only to protect our place in the single market which is 8 times bigger than that of the UK’s”. Sir Thomas Harris, a former ambassador and vice chairman of Standard Chartered bank speaking during the Brexit and Global Expansion Summit in the British capital said that “I don’t see the reason why India, for example, will be prepared to offer concessions in bilateral talks with the UK when it didn’t offer them in talks with the EU for 8 years now”. He described the whole UK-Commonwealth trade deal project as “wishful thinking” of the British government.

Theresa May’s government seems to be searching for new trade allies in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Even though the slogan “Empire 2.0” doesn’t sound good for the people in the ex-colonies, it might be a first step for the revival of relationships that were put on hold for many years. The big question is if the Commonwealth countries are going to cooperate.