UK referendum: being true to the Commonwealth principles
CLGF Secretary-General Dr Carl Wright
On 23 June the voters of the United Kingdom decide in a national referendum if they want to remain in the European Union (EU), a decision will have a profound global impact, both economically and politically, including on members of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF) outside of the UK and on the Commonwealth more generally.
Every serious international economic organisation has warned that the so-called UK ‘Brexit’ from the EU will not only have a highly negative impact on the UK economy itself, but could also have serious consequences for the global economy. This would result from extensive economic instability and uncertainty lasting not months but years - potentially a ‘lost decade’ of slow economic growth. In consequence, reputable business organisations, including CLGF’s own corporate partners such as Microsoft all oppose Brexit. International economic downturn is moreover bad news for Commonwealth emerging economies and least developing countries, which have already suffered significantly from recent global downturn and fall in oil and other community prices. LDCs in particular will be affected by the shrinking of UK GDP and its knock-on effect on the Eurozone and beyond, and the damage to business confidence, trade, investment and indeed the consequent reduction in volume of ODA.
It is therefore not surprising that every single Commonwealth leader and CLGF member representative I have met has told me they want to see the UK stay in the EU. This is also the message which Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland has been getting from around the Commonwealth. It has further been pointed out to me that that substituting the Commonwealth as an economic alternative to the EU, as some Brexit supporters propose, is pure fantasy and that the two organisations are complimentary, not alternatives to each other: while trade among Commonwealth countries is on the up, it would be disastrous for the UK to opt out of the European Single Market of 500 million consumers. In addition, our UK local government members, where many communities benefit directly from EU regional, social, agricultural and other funds, would also be badly hit by Brexit, especially in the poorer and more deprived areas of the UK. Likewise, the work of CLGF itself and of other Commonwealth bodies in support of their members throughout the Commonwealth would be negatively impacted, given the economic turmoil and cuts in public and development funds which would follow Brexit.
However to me, the political argument for ‘remain’ based on international cooperation, is even more powerful. In a global world turning the clock back to wholly sovereign national states is not an option and by leaving the EU, the UK would be surrendering huge diplomatic and political clout which it has, as part of the wider EU grouping. Indeed, Commonwealth countries see the UK as their champion in Brussels and a British exit would also deprive them of a key voice at the table to argue for progressive policies, whether on trade, the environment or development policy, where the EU makes a vital contribution. The Brexit side is therefore both ignorant and highly disrespectful of what is in the interest of the UK’s other 52 Commonwealth partners worldwide, including Britain’s Commonwealth partners in the EU, Cyprus and Malta as well as Ireland.
But perhaps the most neglected argument has been the historical one, which is that the EU had made a fundamental contribution to European peace since 1945 - more than 70 years; it has also helped to overcome the wounds of the Cold War division in Europe since 1989 and the legacy of an often unsavoury colonial past. The EU’s break-up would herald a return to the dark days of the 1930s, with extremist and populist political forces gaining momentum in many countries including the UK, spurned on by fears about mass immigration and terrorism. Thus the Brexit argument of ‘deciding our own future’ is not a vision of a bright optimistic future, it is a relapse into an ugly and xenophobic past, conjuring up deep national prejudices which should be consigned to that famous ‘dustbin of history’.
It must be noted that the current Brexit uncertainty and threat of EU disintegration is part of a wider recent global malaise and collapse of confidence in intergovernmental organisations, including Commonwealth. The decline of internationalism has largely been the result of the massive economic downturn of 2008/09, itself the consequence of failure to regulate banking and financial structures and allow ever-greater inequalities in income and wealth. This is something which ordinary people, who do not get huge massive pay bonuses, but have lost their job, suffered real cuts in income, or felt a squeeze on essential services as a result of government austerity, including cuts in local government budgets, feel understandably aggrieved about. However the answer is not Brexit or withdrawing into a national bunker, with its highly negative economic and political consequences: this would haunt us for decades to come and would be a betrayal of future prospects of our young people, a generation much at ease with Europe and the world.
Instead of Brexit, what is required is a positive and optimistic approach to international cooperation, welcoming greater integration where it makes common sense and tackle global issues such as sustainable development, climate change, urbanisation and counteracting extremism. After the referendum, the UK, together with partners, should take a strong leadership role in support of international solutions, whether it is at the UN, the EU or in the Commonwealth: indeed there will be an early opportunity for doing this in January 2017 when Malta, currently the Chair of the Commonwealth, takes on the EU Presidency and six months later, when the UK has the EU Presidency and then assumes the Commonwealth chair in 2018.
I have spent all my working life - 40 plus years - devoted to and fighting for international cooperation, sustainable development and democracy and human rights, all of which are closely interlinked. I do not want to see my life-long commitment and that of so many other dedicated colleagues and friends from around the world being undermined by a UK decent into a ‘Little England’ status. Instead, I want to see a Great Britain, proudly supporting international engagement and progressive developmental policies in all international organisations including of course CLGF and the Commonwealth in which I fervently continue to believe in.
I therefore conclude by issuing a passionate and sincere plea to my British compatriots and all Commonwealth citizens in the UK who are enfranchised to be true to the principles of the Commonwealth and internationalism; to vote resoundingly for the UK to remain a member of the EU on 23 June; and to then work for a new and positive UK leadership role, cooperating with Commonwealth and EU partners and building on Britain’s respected tradition of ‘punching above its weight’.
Press and other coverage:
Commonwealth Round Table's - Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs
Public Finance International - Commonwealth would lose out if UK leaves EU, CLGF head warns