Spurred by Brexit, the first-of-its-kind meeting of Commonwealth ministers responsible for trade, industry and investment is scheduled over two days next week, with London pinning much hope on India and other countries in the group with a combined population of 2.4 billion.
India will not be represented at the meeting titled ‘Agenda for Growth’ by commerce minister Nirmala Seetharaman, but by the Commerce secretary Rita A Teotia. London-based sources rejected the perception that New Delhi had downgraded it by not sending Seetharaman.
The Theresa May government has often indicated its post-Brexit trade direction by focusing on India and the Commonwealth countries as an alternative to Britain losing access to the European Single Market after leaving the EU.
The meeting is the first major event under the leadership of Patricia Scotland, Commonwealth secretary-general, who took over in April 2016. She has since been the subject of reports accusing her of poor leadership and ‘extravagant’ expenditure on her Mayfair flat.
One of the largest donors, India reportedly frowned upon attempts to blame Scotland’s predecessor, Kamalesh Sharma, for issues facing the new dispensation. The blame-game stopped after it was conveyed that blaming Sharma was tantamount to blaming India.
The meeting, scheduled for March 9 and 10, is convened by the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council and the Commonwealth secretariat, when ministers from over 30 Commonwealth countries are due to consult with business leaders and trade experts.
Scotland said: “Current global trade instability remains a priority concern for member states. It is vital that no country is left behind. Our trade experts have identified significant, untapped opportunities which, with the secretariat’s support, can boost intra-Commonwealth trade from 17% to 25% over the next three years.”
New research by the Royal Commonwealth Society revealed that British businesses place India as the fourth priority country for post-Brexit Britain after Australia, Canada and Singapore.
India climbs the rankings to second with businesses in the Midlands, the North, and the South East of England as well as those in Scotland, it said.
According to the Commonwealth secretariat, there is a distinct ‘Commonwealth advantage’ characterised by shared values, a common language, familiar institutions and similar legal and regulatory systems: “This makes two Commonwealth countries trade on an average 19 to 20% more with each other as compared to their non-Commonwealth partners”.
Next week’s meeting takes place as countries consider the implications of Brexit on key industries across Commonwealth, and follows on from the Commonwealth Business Forum in Malta in November 2015.
Trade experts at the Commonwealth secretariat highlighted the importance of the British market for many member countries, with Scotland last year pledging support during post-Brexit trade negotiations. Since then, the secretariat said it had assisted more than 15 countries on trade competitiveness.
The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 52 independent and sovereign countries, mostly former territories of the British empire. It spans the globe, including both advanced economies and developing countries, in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Americas, Europe and the Pacific.