The Commonwealth's future: leaders begin crucial talks

As Queen Elizabeth welcomed delegates to Buckingham Palace for the opening of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, David Sapsted looks at what is next for the Commonwealth.

Official opening of CHOGM at Buckingham Palace

Official opening of CHOGM at Buckingham Palace Image copyright: Commonwealth Secretariat Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Representatives from 53 Commonwealth countries gathered at Buckingham Palace on Thursday at the start of a two-day meeting that could prove crucial to the future direction of the organisation.Queen Elizabeth welcomed delegates, which included 46 heads of state, to "my own home" at the opening of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), telling the visiting dignitaries that the Commonwealth was "growing stronger year by year".

Commonwealth member states question the relevance and future role of the organisation

But the meeting comes at a time when some member states are questioning the relevance and future role of the organisation, while others see the summit as an opportunity to revitalise and reorganise the bloc - India, for example, sees its potential as an developmental organisation free of Chinese influence, while the UK is keen to develop new, post-Brexit trade arrangements with member states.Prime Minister Theresa May told the gathering that the leaders would "take on some of the 21st Century's biggest questions". She added: "There have been difficulties, successes, controversies, but I believe wholeheartedly in the good that the Commonwealth can do."

Ocean conservation, cyber security, and trade on the CHOGM programme

Issues under discussion at the two-day summit include ocean conservation, cyber security, trade and the Queen's successor as head of the Commonwealth, which the Queen made clear was a role she hoped would go to her eldest son, Prince Charles.Describing the Commonwealth as "one of the world's great convening powers", she said it was her "sincere wish" that the organisation "will decide that one day the Prince of Wales should carry on the important work started by my father in 1949".

Prince Charles' opening speech to the CHOGM summit

Prince Charles himself made the opening speech to the summit, saying: "I pray that this Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting will not only revitalise the bonds between our countries, but will also give the Commonwealth a renewed relevance to all citizens, finding practical solutions to their problems and giving life to their aspirations."By doing so, the Commonwealth can be a cornerstone for the lives of future generations, just as it has been for so many of us."For my part, the Commonwealth has been a fundamental feature of my life for as long as I can remember, beginning with my first visit to Malta when I was just five years old," he said."I consider myself fortunate over the years to have been able to meet and talk with so many of the giants of the Commonwealth - Sir Robert Menzies; Kwame Nkrumah; Sir Keith Holyoake; Jomo Kenyatta; Pierre Trudeau; Kenneth Kaunda; Julius Nyerere; Lee Kuan Yew and many more. ""On the foundations they laid, the modern Commonwealth has a vital role to play in building bridges between our countries, fairer societies within them and a more secure world around them."

India's participation crucial to the future of the Commonwealth

In an article on Thursday in the Times of India, Jitesh Gadhia, a member of UK-India CEO Forum, and Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, argued that India's participation was crucial to the future of the Commonwealth.
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"Without India’s active engagement, the Commonwealth would be a shadow of its potential. It is by far the biggest member, representing more than half of its 2.4 billion combined population and, alongside Britain, the biggest economy," they wrote."India personifies the youth, growth, scale and diversity which defines the modern Commonwealth – and brings the added legitimacy of being the world’s largest democracy."So with the Commonwealth at another inflection point, Indians are asking the fundamental question: what is the Commonwealth for? This is a point which the British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has also made in its latest report calling for 'clear aims for what the UK wants to achieve… with a credible strategy, specific objectives and metrics for success'.

The prosperity agenda is not enough: what role should the UK have in the Commonwealth?

"It is clear that the Commonwealth cannot be a fully fledged political block given the widely diverging interests between 53 nations and longstanding bilateral issues amongst members...but the UK could, for example, build a caucus in the UN bridging its role as the sole Commonwealth member of the Security Council with the General Assembly."Economic collaboration is the only significant alternative. A greater focus on prosperity – one of the four key themes of the London summit – would certainly suit the British agenda as it prepares to leave EU."So the prosperity agenda is plausible but it cannot stand alone. Britain must show the other 52 members that its renewed focus on the Commonwealth is not just an opportunistic antidote to Brexit but a real change of heart from the British government."