An inaugural Commonwealth summit focused on stimulating trade within the group, kicked off on Thursday in London, as government trade representatives and business people gathered to discuss opportunities for growth and cooperation. The meeting, though planned before last year’s Brexit referendum has acquired new significance as a result of it, as Britain pushes for trade deals beyond the E.U. borders, while India has also accorded the forum with increased priority.
The two-day event involves a series of roundtable discussions between ministers from over 30 countries and chief executives, followed by a ministerial roundtable, which its organisers hope will kick start further action on strengthening cross-Commonwealth trade, ahead of next year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in the U.K. next year, which is expected to bring together leaders as well as 2,000 businesses from across the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth leadership is targeting an increase in intra-Commonwealth trade to $1 trillion by 2020, from $750 billion. Organisers of the trade summit are hopeful that a Commonwealth accord that recognises the benefits of trade within the block, and provides the framework for potential trade initiatives between groupings within it is achievable in the next couple of years.
India is being represented by Commerce Secretary Rita A Teotia, who took part in panel discussions on Thursday on the ease of doing business, and creating an export economy. India is thought to be particularly well placed when it comes to taking a leading role in driving forward the Commonwealth growth, given that it along with the U.K. is one of the few Commonwealth nations that has established trade relations stretched across the globe, while many other Commonwealth members are regionally focused. In addition to providing opportunities to discuss trade with long-standing partners — including in Africa, where India has the established channel of the India-Africa Summit — Commonwealth summits provide an opportunity for India to converse with the smaller island states.
Ms. Teotia’s visit, will be followed by that of M.J. Akbar who will be attending the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group meeting next week, also in London.
“From today till the CHOGM summit the Commonwealth will be an important part of our agenda,” said Deputy High Commissioner Dinesh Patnaik on Thursday.
In a speech to delegates British Trade Secretary Liam Fox highlighted Britain’s eagerness to forge stronger ties beyond the E.U., and that the Commonwealth had the opportunity to lead the “defence of free trade.” “Protectionism can be a seductive but a false friend,” he said. While Britain is not able to enter into trade talks until it has exited the European Union, opportunities such as the Commonwealth summit provide an opportunity for it to take part in discussions in a multilateral setting.
Dr. Fox also highlighted a Commonwealth meeting of small and medium sized businesses that was taking place next month in India, designed to “help developing Commonwealth nations benefit from India’s global value chains, tapping into the diversification of their export markets and improvements to their supply chai capacity.”
Speaking at the start of the day Lord Marland, chair of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council noted the sharp disparity between the population of the Commonwealth (around a third of the world’s population) and its share of trade (around 15%). “That gives great potential,” he said adding that common actors such as language, and similarities in legal and regulatory regimes meant that the costs of trade could be on average 19% lower compared to other states. Changing attitudes towards globalization in other parts of the world, added to the opportunities presented to the Commonwealth to stimulate trade within the group, he said.
“When countries protect themselves it will give short term benefit to sectors but it can do great harm,” said New Zealand’s Minister for Trade Todd McClay said ahead of the discussions. “We need outcomes individual or otherwise that helps bring us together and makes trade freer and fairer and helps our economies grow.”
Martin Sutherland, Chief Executive of note maker De La Rue, said that a forum that brought policy makers, government officials and businesses together would help spur change. “Businesses are naturally forward looking,” he said.