Opinion: The Commonwealth and the EU


Pro-Europe supporters are heading to repeat the same mistake as the Fair Votes referendum campaign by ignoring multicultural Britain’s perspectives. Should the race become neck-and-neck this could well tip the balance in favour of ‘out’.

A key difference from the electoral reform vote is that the EU ‘out’ lobby can see the value of attracting diverse communities for the Euro poll. UKIP, in particular, are pushing a pro-Commonwealth argument by claiming that Britain’s trade relationships can be switched from Europe to Asia, Africa and the Americas.

I say ‘argument’ because there isn’t much real substance underpinning their rhetoric. No policies to flesh out how Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth can develop have been forthcoming. This is hardly a total surprise given UKIP’s Commonwealth Spokesman, the indefatigable Winston McKenzie, doesn’t exactly do policy.

Neither UKIP’s general election manifesto nor last years’ European campaign put any meat on the bones. At the moment they don’t have to because there is no effective counter-narrative being offered on the question of the Europe, the Commonwealth and the developing world. So the anti-Europe brigade literally have free reign on the issue.

Admittedly there isn’t a fully-formed ‘in’ campaign yet, and we await the outcome of David Cameron’s negotiations, but if the AV referendum is anything to go by we should begin to cover all bases, including the question of the Commonwealth. And begin early.

Let us not make the mistake of under-estimating the attractiveness of UKIP’s line with large portions of Britain’s 14 percent of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) voters who were born in, or are of the generations from, the Commonwealth. A head-in-the-sand posture hasn’t served us well lately.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), an EU-US bi-lateral agreement cooked up in Brussels, which proposes an unprecedented shift of power from citizens to big corporations, reaffirms an image of Europe that is remote and unaccountable.

A pro-EU platform must confront the TTIP with an internationalist vision of balanced trade with Europe, the US, the Commonwealth and the rest of the non-EU world built on fairness between all parts of the globe ensuring mutually beneficial growth all round.

The last Labour government colluded with Europe to end preferential trade agreements on Caribbean bananas which was a hammer blow to many small islands that are part of the Commonwealth. That was the latest in a string of EU changes that continues to cause suffering in those former colonies.

The argument for remaining in the EU will be all the stronger for supporting smaller nations that are rely heavily on a few exports, like the Caribbean, just as Europe itself supports its’ own weaker members.

The case for a stronger world economy and fairer world society is an important one for all progressives because asking people to vote for the European status quo becomes ever less attractive the further you dig.

Merely saying that it is important to be at the table to argue for reform rings hollow unless we are offering a positive programme of what kind of changes we want to see, not just of European bureaucracy but externally to the rest of the world too.

The contrast between a long-stagnated Eurozone and the growing BRIC superpowers of Brazil, Russia, India and China – as well as African states, six of whom are in the top ten fastest-growing GDP’s in the world – appears to offer an easy answer for Eurosceptics.

Because the future of Europe depends to a large degree on its relationship with the BRIC and other countries and regions – including blocs like the African Union which have recently set up two trading areas within the continent – it is vital that the ‘in’ campaign does not afford ‘out’ supporters the room to portray the debate purely as being in Europe versus engagement with the rest of the world.

Failure to offer a progressive narrative on this question will cede valuable ground to the sceptics and, I predict, allow them to appeal to Britain’s BAME communities. As Liberal Democrats we can lead this policy debate.

Internationalists need to shift from importing Eurocentric ideals of democracy into countries they once governed while quietly prioritising European wealth over the economic wellbeing all other global citizens, to reform of the EU in order to promote a fairer world not by cultural values alone but by trade.

Moving from aid to trade by dismantling EU tariff barriers erected against developing countries, cancelling all debt, standing against the IMF’s neo-con austerity prescription and advocating for equity between the EU, the African Union, and the BRIC nations we will be offering a pro-EU narrative that blows UKIP’s hollow pro-Commonwealth stance out of the water. And multicultural communities will thank us for it at the referendum ballot box.

* Lester Holloway is a former councillor and member of the Equalities Policy Working Group, and a member of the Race Equality Taskforce

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  • Some fair points, Lester, but some weaker ones. (ALL debt is never going to be cancelled, however guilty the west feels about slavery).
    Also, I doubt senior Tories have any intention of losing, as we saw in the Scotland vote, they have their own tactics. They know which side THEIR economic bread is buttered, and it isn’t BREXIT. I doubt they are trying to build a coalition of support on anti-austerity, though! Expect the Mail to say Cammers has done JUST enough for an IN vote…

  • Simon Fulton 22nd Jun '15 - 12:58pm

    Also the never-ending Euro debt crisis is not going to help us.

  • Neil Sandison 22nd Jun '15 - 2:50pm

    Some interesting arguments Lester .Given what is happening in Southern Europe at the moment with mass migration from parts the African continent should we be looking at a European/African stabilisation fund based on fair trade to enable those worn torn governments to stabilise their internal affairs and generate internal wealth and jobs in the best interests of their populations? .The pictures from Calais , Italy and Greece are troubling European populations and adding to the fear factor that UKIP feeds upon .Positive intervention and soft diplomacy of an economic kind may assist particularly if it has UN support.

  • Lester Holloway 22nd Jun '15 - 2:53pm

    @GPPurnell – The developing world were originally pushed loans as a means for the oil producing countries to invest OPEC dollars. Like Wonga they then got clobbered by interest and ended up owing a great deal more. Often the original loans were paid off yet debtor countries were still paying a huge amount to service them, often at the expense of their own investment and public services. Then the IMF come in and order those countries to slash state spending yet more. And this is on top of historic under-development during colonialism. The debt has already been paid on a range of levels.

  • Lester Holloway 22nd Jun '15 - 3:04pm

    @ Neil Sandison – its truly heartbreaking to witness the Med deaths crisis, and also heartbreaking to see so many Africans desperate to leave Africa. The Med situation is complicated because some are leaving Syria, some from conflict in Somalia and other war zones, some are economic migrants from around the continent including West Africa, and some Libyans are sub-Saharan driven out by the upsurge in anti Nubian racism that happened after Gadaffi was taken out. Which begs the question, where do you start? Each has it’s own causes and dynamics and there are no easy answers. I’d like to see an empowered African Union to deal with conflict within the continent, and more generally a fair deal on trade including dismantling tariff barriers to the Wesr. And reparations for historic damage, under-development and its ongoing legacy.

  • Lester Holloway 22nd Jun '15 - 4:13pm

    @ Paul Reynolds – Thank you. (1) You are right TTIP isn’t agreed yet, a decision was postponed amid mounting criticism across the world. As you will no doubt know, free trade agreements vary in terms of the free reign it gives business. By common consensus TTIP has got the balance wrong. It’s non-appealable trade courts appear to put business above common law. I have no doubt some criticism is overblown (eg NHS) and I believe campaigners have made the case against too complicated throwing too many plates into the sink, hampering the public’s understanding. But it’s still a terrible proposal for everyone who doesn’t believe in unfettered and irresponsible capitalism. We need social liberals to stand up to big corporations, Labour won’t.

    (2) Tell that too the many countries that have seen anti-austerity uprisings, and subsequent food riots, as a result of IMF structural adjustment plans. Yes they have eased off a bit since the 80s and 90s, but not completely. I really don’t think the managing of state finances is really comparable to the debt that has caused the problem, especially as developing countries were sold low interest rates that were soon hiked up, again due to oil prices. The question of whether or not the indebted states are democratic is a more complicated issue, relating as it does to East/West sponsored coups and counter-coups.

    (3) Agree about HIPIC, one of the few effective things the Commonwealth has done in its’ history. Re countries exempting themselves from payments, this has happened on a handful of occasions but never lasted long for different reasons. But the case for rejecting debt remains strong, even if perhaps unachievable in reality.

    (4) Disagree about tariffs not being an issue. Yes, non tariff barriers matter as well, but I think its’ just wrong to suggest that tariffs aren’t a very major issue. If they aren’t there’s no reason not to scrap them, is there?!!

  • paul barker 22nd Jun '15 - 4:50pm

    A quick point about “the growing BRIC superpowers”. Two of those, Brazil & Russia are in severe recession right now.
    As far as The Commonwealth goes, surely having a member inside The EU is a potential advantage ?

  • Lester Holloway 22nd Jun '15 - 5:00pm

    As far as I know Brasil isn’t in recession, but happy to be corrected.

  • Simon Fulton 22nd Jun '15 - 5:19pm

    so how do you think the never-ending Euro/Greek debt crisis will affect the referendum debate in the UK?

  • Little Jackie Paper 22nd Jun '15 - 6:48pm

    Sorry Mr Holloway, you have completely lost me here.

    Would you broadly describe yourself as EUrosceptic? It’s not at all clear in the article. You say, ‘asking people to vote for the European status quo becomes ever less attractive the further you dig,’ That might well be the case of course but then I was even more confused by this.

    ‘Moving from aid to trade by dismantling EU tariff barriers erected against developing countries, cancelling all debt, standing against the IMF’s neo-con austerity prescription and advocating for equity between the EU, the African Union, and the BRIC nations.’

    Again, OK….but isn’t this just going to fall into the sort of bind that Cameron has found himself in? Reform needs to be backed by a lot of member states. If you don’t have that level of backing then you don’t have a great deal of anything and you end up chasing a phantom. If what we have come referendum time is what you call the status quo, possibly with a bit of lipstick, will you be arguing for an OUT?

    Don’t get me wrong here, it may well be that the UKIP stance is hollow and or cynical – I don’t know. But then equally I suspect that we are not going to be offered the Europe you seem to want any time soon either. Whether the Commonwealth is some sort of alternative, compliment or whatever will probably be tested in the referendum campaign. Commonwealth communities can form their own views. For my part I remain suspicious that a good number of the OUTs want less Europe so they can have more corporatism.

    But in the referendum all of us will have to look at Europe as the art of the possible, not what we would like it to be. By the end of the article I wasn’t altogether sure what you were arguing for, other than a really strong pursuit of the phantom.

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Jun '15 - 6:52pm

    This is a good article, Lester. I don’t agree with all of it, but there are some good ideas to begin working with. I have thought in the past that we need to turn the EU into a “Global Democratic Union”. Whilst it focuses mainly on the EU it will always be able to be attacked as being too Eurocentric or worse: European imperialism.


  • Lester Holloway 22nd Jun '15 - 7:33pm

    @ Little Jackie Paper – I was rather hoping the question of whether I was a Europhile or Eurosceptic didn’t come up because, frankly, it’s complicated! But I suppose given the nature of the article it was inevitable! I am not arguing for ‘out’, I want Britain to be ‘in’, but the long and unequal relationship between Europe and the developing world is background which all feed into the ‘Commonwealth question’. If the ‘out’ campaign are saying Britain needs to switch its’ focus from Europe to the Commonwealth that is something (I argue above) could be attractive to many whose families are from CW countries. It is the single most important factor attracting BAME activists into UKIP and keeping them there. Take that out and they’re gone. We may not be offered a ‘the Europe we want anytime soon’, but its’ certainly important to debate Europe’s relationship with the global south, and make that part of the referendum campaign. That was the point of the article above at any rate.

    In short, I’m a passionate beliver in the European project; as a bullwark against any future wars and as a protector of human rights and upholder of standards (including consumer rights and environmentalism). I would without a seconds thought vote to stay in the EU. However I am an internationalist, which is much wider than Europe obviously, and passionate about Africa, my mothers’ continent, and have a particular interest in the African Diaspora, its’ history and modern condition. And in all those respects Europe does not come out well at all. It is Europe as an entity that are the accused in the CARICOM (Caribbean nations) legal case for reparations. When France went into Mali, Chad and the Central African Republic, these are issues that should not have led to former colonial rulers going into Africa with weapons. And that’s before we even get onto the historic brutal and bloody oppression of uprisings against colonial rule. The disregard of the African Union speaks volumes about Europe’s assumptions about its’ right to kill whoever it wishes in nations it once oppressively ruled over while enjoying a hedonistic lifestyle. A Europe that keeps trade barriers up but tells others to liberalise their economies, that slashes Caribbean banana importation agreements (as mentioned above) causing hardship… This is not a Europe I want to see.

  • Lester Holloway 22nd Jun '15 - 7:36pm

    @ Eddie Sammon – Great point!

    @ Paul Reynolds – Thanks for clarifying, I thought you were saying tariffs weren’t an issue, but happy to stand corrected on that. Respect your other points too.

  • Lester Holloway 22nd Jun '15 - 7:42pm

    Just to clarify the point about “Europe’s assumptions about its’ right to kill whoever it wishes in nations it once oppressively ruled over while enjoying a hedonistic lifestyle”. That might have been put a little too passionately. I must remember I’m writing on LDV…! It was a reference to both imperial rule and modern intervention, but perhaps was unnecessary in the context of this discussion.

  • Jonathan Brown 22nd Jun '15 - 9:04pm

    Very interesting article Lester. I think UKIP’s use of trade with the Commonwealth is nothing more than a device to avoide accusations of racism, but you are very right to point out that the pro-EU side has to counter it anyway – with an equally and genuinely pro-Commonwealth argument of its own.

    I don’t agree with your emphasis on all the points above (quite a lot though!) and certainly it’s a good reminder that the ‘in’ campaign has to present a positive vision for the EU’s role in a postive future and can’t just rely on slagging off the opposition.

  • I agree, its a very interesting point, and I think its very important not to forget the relationship we have with the global south, particularly the former colonies. However, I would also come down strongly with the view that the Commonwealth is not the institution to carry that relationship forward.

    Neither it, nor its analogues in the other former colonial empires are able to foster the environment of mutual respect and cooperation that we need if we are to move on from the colonial legacy. Europe united behind a common security and foreign policy might very well be able to interact more constructively with these other people than any of its constituents can alone, tied up as they are in the cultural and political legacy of empire.

    On the issue of tariffs and other barriers between European and other economies, it strikes me that suddenly opening emerging markets to free trade with established ones is harmful to both sides, in different ways. Certainly, opening full unfettered free trade across a large divide in wealth does not automatically, or even usually, lead to a convergence in economic status. If anything, it allows more to accrue to those who are already wealthy. Political and economic convergence towards the highest common standard is a goal that should be pursued before the barriers are lowered – but yes, an end to trade barriers should be pursued as part of an overall goal of global convergence to a sustainable and high standard of living for all. And that should be my daily quota of utopianism reached.

  • I broadly agree with Lester, that in or out, we need to consider the Commonwealth. Whilst the ‘out’ supporters will say the Commonwealth are people we can trade with and as Lester indicates there are groups to whom this message will resonate. However, I suggest, and I think this is what Lester is alluding to, that trade with the Commonwealth (and other nations outside of the EU) is also a major consideration of being ‘In’, particularly if we wish to deliver on our desire to improve the well-being of peoples beyond our shores. In some respects we need to remind our European neighbours of their trading history and the shortsightedness of the conditions of membership imposed on the UK back in the 70’s…

    Also through such trading arrangements, we stand a chance of making the improvements needed to stem the flood of migrants washing up on the EU’s shores. [Aside: whilst ‘intervention’ maybe necessary to restore ‘peace’ in some countries, we are still left with “winning the peace”, which in part is where trade comes in…]

  • Neil Sandison 23rd Jun '15 - 10:13am

    Surely the response to UKIP and the Tories is that little old GB on its own could not possible assist the continent of Africa overcome these enormous problems and that Cameron should be arguing for the EU to collectively tackle this problem on its doorstep rather than just pulling up the drawbridge on genuine asylum seekers.
    The EU and the UN could look at safe havens to stem the flow whilst negotiations take place with the legitimate governments of these countries on stabilisation .Clearly we would want to see democratic structures put in place as part of the package but that would not be a pre-cursor to co-operation .The carrot would be better trade agreements between Africa and the EU .We shouldn’t forget that Africa is still a rich continent in terms of natural resources but these are being heavily exploited by a few large corporations who made corrupt deals with the weak governments or despots in charge at the time. That was my point on fair trade, Economic support must help the populations of these worn torn and impoverished nations not just line the pockets of corporations and elites within those nations.

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Jun '15 - 12:08pm

    We can trade with the Commonwealth now and should be doing more of it.
    What UKIP is talking about is negotiating trade agreements while inside or outside the EU.
    As they dream of a better yesterday they appear to be implying Commonwealth preference,
    so should we buy cocoa from Ghana but not from Cote d’Ivoire?

    If the USA were to phase out, or abolish, its subsidies to domestic cotton producers other countries around the world would benefit from freer trade.

    While we worry about our trade with the USA they are more concerned about their trading partners in the Pacific, most of whom are not democracies. Where they have questionable standards of law enforcement the value of any trade agreement becomes doubtful.

    Suppose we do not have a trade agreement with, say, China, on a service or product and the USA does. A perverse incentive is created for changing country of origin labelling. Bring back the World trade Organisation, all is forgiven?

  • A v ery interesting article. As someone closely involved with Africa I can see enormous benefits from widening trade with the Commonwealth. (It is shameful that Germany trades more with India then we do!) At the moment UK international trade with the Commonwealth is tiny and China is making huge inroads into the African continent.
    Lester – the shutting down of former beneficial trade tariffs and quotas of bananas from the Caribbean was not down to the EU but to the WTO. Pressure from the US mega-businesses which source from South and Central America meant that the EU had little choice over the matter. The battle between the EU and the Latin American/US companies over this went on for years and years and years.

  • Actually the EU engages with the rest of the world. The EU has a lot of association agreements with countries in Asia, Africa and South America and is currently negotiating a big expansion of free trade agreements in those continents.
    Remember economic unions are being formed in other parts of the world which would leave an isolated Britain in a difficult position to gain market access abroad. Other countries will not give Britain preferential treatment simply out of awe.

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