High hopes are being pinned on the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, for its potential in reviving the community of 53 nations as a political and economic force on the world stage. Crucially India has indicated its interest, with Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu recently suggesting that India could play a key leadership role in its renewal. With closer ties between business and trade seen as key to this, a Commonwealth Business Forum will precede the gathering in mid-April, organised by the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (CWEIC) established just three years ago with view to increasing intra-Commonwealth trade and investment, which currently lags behind its potential in the view of many. The CWEIC’s Chairman Lord Marland of Odstock spoke to BusinessLine about what he hopes will emerge from the two gatherings, particularly given the renewed interest from India and beyond.
Intra-commonwealth trade is projected to rise substantially to $1 trillion in 2020 from $525 billion in 2015 . How achievable do you think this is?
Of course. The Commonwealth is on the cusp of something quite remarkable, though we are not anywhere near there at the moment. It’s on the cusp largely due to the engagement of India. What is so exciting about the CHOGM is the interest that Prime Minister Modi is taking… and the encouragement he’s given to Indian business through FICCI and CII.
The reason I cite this example is because till now India has been kind of sitting on the side lines, it’s not engaged, particularly from a trade point of view so it’s an exciting time.
We had also previously had no engagement from South Africa, but with (President) Cyril Ramaphosa (former deputy chair of the Commonwealth Business Council), and add to that the new outward looking attitude from Canada, and of course you have the UK and Brexit — the way the plates are moving around I can see real activity being generated out of it.
Is this a situation that requires a particular country to take the lead?
I think like any club, unless people commit to using the facilities and commit to making an effort towards it, nothing happens.
Many people want to see the UK government take a leadership role, they want India to engage,… I am pretty hopeful that the Commonwealth will not only survive but become stronger.
What role will Brexit play? Is it an advantage or a distraction?
Curiously the light hasn’t gone in with the UK government which is entirely focussed on Brexit. Yes they are making arrangements post-Brexit but they haven’t yet at this moment worked out how they are going to lead the Commonwealth for the next two years.
Is it a distraction? I think there is the possibility the UK might miss the opportunity but I don’t think the others will.
Is a formal Commonwealth trade agreement the route ahead?
It’s going to be very difficult to have a formal Commonwealth trade agreement, but there is no reason why a group of countries that share similar views on free trade, business practices, and the rule of law, should not establish a trade agreement — the start of a Commonwealth trade agreement and as other countries develop their economies, they can sign up to that agreement.
What are the key objectives for the forum?
We are an enabling organisation.
The Business forum is something to bring together eminent business figures to understand the benefits of free trade, common business practices and the rule of law within that opportunities.
They can learn and benefit from other countries’ involvement in certain sectors such as tech.
The other aspect is that we have the Chinese with tentacles everywhere. We need to find a way of competing with them and I would hope out of this comes a view on cooperation. Why can’t the UK cooperate with India, with Malaysia, with African countries in competing with the Chinese? There is so much talent in these countries — they are a third of the world’s population. If we can harness it we can become quite a significant force.
This is all part of a process of 53 nations the bulk of which are re-engaging with each other to form a strong alliance and coming up with some serious building blocks — this is the very early start of the process. We are not at the point we could have a Commonwealth trade agreement but we can ask the questions — why aren’t we working together — how can we work together more closely. This is totally different to what has been happening in the past 10 to 12 years.
This is happening at a time of rising protectionism in some parts of the world…
What you have in the world at the moment is connectivity like you’ve never seen it at a human level and a business level. And you have disconnectivity at a political level and our event is here to help connectivity not to hinder it.
And if governments want to take an independent view as to frustrating connectivity they have to understand this is a powerful typhoon of connectivity sweeping across the world and they are going to have to understand how to work with it rather than prevent it.
Connectivity is of course about physical movement too. How much of an obstacle are tough immigration policies?
I don’t see there is a huge barrier to entry for businesses coming to visit countries selling products, doing trade — the migration issue is much more long term and from the business point of view there aren’t the same barriers to entry.
What would you like to see from India?
Indian business people are very entrepreneurial and constantly looking at opportunities to see how they can cooperate — India has to carry more people with them, recognise they haven’t got the full skill set — as every country should recognise — and work with countries to compete in a world where there is China and we are in danger of losing out to them…
India working with other countries giving rather than taking is going to be a really transformative thing for the Commonwealth and we are grateful to the Indian government for their approach.
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