Opinion: Commonwealth roundtable to kickoff ambitious ‘Agenda for Growth’

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By Patricia Scotland, Commonwealth Secretary-General

This week, Commonwealth Trade and Investment ministers will meet for the first time in London at Marlborough House, the Commonwealth’s headquarters. The two-day meeting, jointly organised with the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, will kick-start an ambitious ‘Agenda for Growth’ across the Commonwealth’s 52 member countries.

Our challenge is to ensure that countries are best positioned to harness the ‘Commonwealth advantage,’ of a shared common language, similar institutions and familiar legal systems which means that Commonwealth countries tend to trade 20 per cent more between themselves and generate 10 per cent more foreign direct investment with each other compared to their non-Commonwealth partners.

Intra-Commonwealth trade is projected to surpass $1 trillion in the next five years and to reach nearly $2 trillion by 2030 – even under a low-growth scenario.

Nevertheless, recent research by the Commonwealth Secretariat shows that most of the Commonwealth’s 52 members have been hit by the global slowdown in trade: in 2015, world trade growth shrank by 12 per cent.

So at a time of increasing protectionism, it is all the more important for Commonwealth and other countries to speak out for a free, fair and inclusive multilateral trading system that supports attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Commonwealth Trade Ministers meeting is one opportunity to do so. It will be a step along the path to a meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government in the UK in Spring 2018. I expect it to build on what we do already to support Commonwealth countries to make the most of their trade opportunities.

For example, working with the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of states, the Commonwealth Secretariat has deployed a network of 22 trade advisers around our member countries to help them take advantage of trade opportunities. This has achieved strong practical results as well as praise from the beneficiaries.

Several Commonwealth countries – including the UK – are already contributing generously to helping developing countries boost their regional and world trade. This illustrates how, by cooperating together, we can achieve what the label says on the tin: Common Wealth.

Cooperation should include working together to implement the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement which came into force last month and which 34 Commonwealth WTO members have already ratified. This important agreement aims to remove red-tape and bureaucratic obstacles to trade and could increase global merchandise exports by up to $1 trillion.

Many Commonwealth countries have a good story to tell in this area: between 2014 and 2016, more than half our members ranked on the World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index improved their overall scores.

I hope Commonwealth countries will also work on coherent positions to strengthen trade multilateralism ahead of the WTO’s 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in December.

Our research points to other means by which Commonwealth countries can help bolster trade. Regional initiatives are of key importance: there are, for example, already ambitious plans for a Continental Free Trade Agreement in Africa.

But, especially in a post-Brexit world, there may also be important opportunities for bilateral deals and pan-Commonwealth arrangements that boost prosperity.

The 52 countries of the Commonwealth are hugely diverse. But trade makes a big contribution to the prosperity of all our citizens. Working together, we in the Commonwealth can play a catalytic role in revitalising the world trade agenda. This is the moment.

( — The Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC served as the Attorney General for England and Wales and Advocate General for Northern Ireland. At the 2015 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting she was elected the 6th Secretary-General — )