When the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community in 1973, it left many of its trading partners behind – including significant Commonwealth nations like Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. With Brexit looming, the UK aspires to reconnect with former partners who have since forged their own path. However, the trade agendas of these three Commonwealth nations might challenge British hopes, as its former trade partners tend to prioritise connections with the European Union (EU) and larger trade blocks.
The United Kingdom has kept strong political relationships with its former colonies through the Commonwealth – a voluntary intergovernmental association of 52 nations with historical ties to the British Empire – and recent events suggest British trade policy following Brexit will look to re-establish former trade links with some its historical partners. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson recently visited New Zealand expressing a strong interest in a UK-NZ Free Trade Agreement (FTA). A Joint Trade Working Group with Australia has also been established, and the UK has started informal talks with Canada to sign a FTA once they leave the EU.
Be that as it may, as the World Trade Organisation demonstrated with its failed negotiation round in Doha, reaching global trade agreements in the 21st century has proven increasingly difficult. To compensate, many nations have instead preferred engaging negotiations with and within trading blocs. Hence, Commonwealth nations have been in the process of deepening trade links among themselves and with the European Union – the world’s largest and most comprehensive trade bloc with strong judicial institutions that respect the rule of law.
Both the EU and Commonwealth States are looking to the future of global trade – trade between blocs. Trade policy in the 21st century has become a mix of multilateral agreements between large groups of states rather international (WTO format) or bilateral agreements. The CETA between Canada and the EU signifies the intent to establish stronger trans-Atlantic trade links, as was TTIP and the EU-Mexico Global Agreement. Applied to the Commonwealth, parallel FTAs with Australia and New Zealand proposed during the 2017 State of the Union, signal a similar attempt to integrate the EU with the New Zealand-Australia Single Market. Setting an ambitious target of concluding talks before the end of the current Juncker Commission, negotiations will be aided by the fact that both sides have similar pre-existing institutional set-ups.