Time for a post-Brexit re-evaluation of the Commonwealth

Time for a post-Brexit re-evaluation of the Commonwealth
Time for a post-Brexit re-evaluation of the Commonwealth

The Royal Commonwealth Society chief digs into some of the tough issues tackled during the ongoing Global Britain and India inquiry being conducted by the UK Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. For 'Global Britain' to be more than a hollow slogan, and for Brexit to avoid being simply a harmful shift inwards, the UK will need to seriously re-evaluate and revisit its international relationships. It is important that this re-evaluation also take place within the context of the Commonwealth. That is why, at the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS), we were pleased to be able to contribute to the parliamentary enquiry 'Global Britain and India', to advance our call for a stronger relationship between two great Commonwealth nations. There has never been a better time for the UK and India to build a deeper, forward-looking partnership . India is on the rise and destined to be the third largest economy in the world by 2028, with economic growth registering at more than 7 per cent per annum, meaning that India is the fastest growing economy amongst the G20 nations. Alongside this meteoric ascent to the status of a global economic and political superpower has come a bold new vision for greater Indian reach in trade and diplomatic relations. Put simply, a stronger relationship with India is in Britain's interests. As Britons and Indians alike know, the UK and India's long-standing relationship is about more than just history. This is a relationship of vibrant cultural exchange, business links built on high-tech industry and trade, and shared democratic values. In fact, India is Britain's fourth largest source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and the UK is India's third. Yet this relationship is more than just bilateral. The RCS believes that the strength of India, the UK, and the Commonwealth are interdependent, and that working through the Commonwealth provides huge opportunities to advance our shared agenda of democracy, security, trade and soft power. We have always made the case that India is a critical member of the Commonwealth. Not only does India represent more than half of the Commonwealth's population, but it was also fundamental to founding the modern Commonwealth when Prime Minister Nehru insisted that allegiance to the British Crown be dropped as a membership requirement. This single action shifted the Commonwealth from a vehicle of the British Empire to the modern soft power network of equal, diverse and independent nations we see today. Without Nehru's insight at the 1949 Prime Minister's Conference, the Commonwealth could easily have ceased to exist. Instead, the membership of India allowed the accession of many other newly independent republics, particularly in Africa. These new nations brought the Commonwealth to the forefront of the global fight against apartheid in South Africa, and imbued the organisation with a new sense of purpose as a project of decolonisation, diversity and dialogue. Yet the Commonwealth now faces new challenges, as rising populism and isolationism threaten the values of human rights, democracy and multilateralism on which the Commonwealth is founded. Despite the Commonwealth bucking the trend of declining democracy, across the world it's clear that many of the impressive gains Britain, India, and the Commonwealth have supported as champions of a fair and rules-based international order are being reversed. Simultaneously, it has become increasingly obvious that the international order is shifting and the future is in Asia and Africa. It is to these two continents we must turn for our future. Of the two growing Asian superpowers of the next century, China's interests are dominant on the world stage. However, India's long-standing cultural, historic, and diaspora connections with the UK, along with its similar secular and democratic values, make it a vital future partner for the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Our view is that promoting India as a leader in the Commonwealth and as a counter balance to Chinese global influence is key to ensuring a more democratic, fair, and prosperous world. We're confident that Prime Minister Modi's attendance of the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London, after the 13-year absence of an Indian head of government, is a strong signal of Indian intention to increase its engagement through the Commonwealth network, including with Britain. The soft power value of the Commonwealth to India is obvious - this is a multilateral fora of equal nations where the United States, Russia and particularly China are not in the room. Yet we have long been warning that the UK has neglected the India relationship in favour of fostering better relations with China. In particular, we continue to voice concern that the UK's approach to visas for Indian nationals runs counter to economic and diplomatic sense and continues to undermine attempts to build a stronger relationship with India. We're heartened that the thorny issue of visas was raised in the vast majority of submissions to the Global Britain and India parliamentary enquiry. Changing the UK's approach to visas is essential to any future deepening of bilateral relations. The failure of the UK and India to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on visas at CHOGM, which had previously been announced, is a sure sign that we still have a long way to go. For the last three years we have led a campaign to improve Britain's offer of visitor visas to Indian nationals. Currently, while Chinese citizens are subject to a special visa arrangement that provides all successful applicants with a two-year multiple entry visa at a third of the usual price, Indian visitors receive no such special treatment. Alongside our partners in Indian business, UK tourism, and our international branches in India, we are calling for India and the UK to sign a similar deal. We know this is a key point of contention for India. Meanwhile, France has overtaken Britain as the European destination of choice for Indian nationals at a cost of millions in lost tourism revenue to the UK economy. Adopting the Royal Commonwealth Society's proposal to allow Indian visitors the same elevated status without reducing visa security would send the right message to India that the UK is serious about advancing bilateral relations and welcoming Indian visitors to the UK. In shifting geopolitical landscapes, it's clear that for the Commonwealth to continue its vital work India must play a stronger role. For Britain, working with India to build stronger cultural, trading and international relationships within the Commonwealth in Asia and Africa is essential to supporting robust, democratic, and sustainable nations and economies. Coming together to push for these shared interests should not be difficult, but it will require a greater degree of trust and good faith than before. That is why we are making clear that a stronger partnership between the UK and India is of long-term benefit to British and India, to the Commonwealth, and for global democracy and prosperity in a changing world. Dr Greg Munro is the Chief Executive of the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS).

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