There has been a lot of media attention on Lord Ashcroft's latest research Europe on Trial. It is an extensive examination of the UK population's views on Europe. However one of the overlooked results was the relative popularity of the Commonwealth.
When asked "how positive or negative do you feel towards each of the following?", the Commonwealth was the highest scoring political/international organisation ahead of local councils, the UK Parliament, the ECHR, the EU, and the European Parliament.
Several countries were also included in the question and again the Commonwealth & Anglosphere does well with all 4 nations polled (Canada, the USA, India and South Africa) receiving higher average scores than any European institution and Canada receiving the highest score of all countries and institutions:
While this is obviously positive and welcome news, especially in light of some recent negative press for the Commonwealth and several of its member states, caution is required.
There is a danger with this that, for Britain, the Commonwealth will come to be seen only as an alternative to the EU. This not only undervalues this incredible network that we have inherited, it also could lead to it being ignored for as long as Britain is in the EU. This would be a costly error as, in or out, we should be pushing for more and freer trade with other Commonwealth countries.
It is worth remembering that the EU has signed or is working on deals with Canada, Signapore, India, South Africa and various other key Commonwealth countries. In addition, the UK is not the only Commonwealth country in the single market with Malta and Cyprus also being members of both organisations.
These negotiations have often not proceeded as rapidly or freely as we would like but, for as long as the UK remains a part of the EU, they are the only mechanism for us to expand trade with our Commonwealth partners around the world.*
By only viewing the Commonwealth as an alternative to the EU, and therefore to be ignored until a potential future Brexit, there is a danger of trade negotiations with Commonwealth countries slowing or being abandoned just when Britain should be applying ever more pressure for freer trade through the EU and any other channel it has available to it.
CX does not take a firm position on whether or not the UK should be in the EU but the Commonwealth MUST be a priority in either case.
*Worryingly, the Ashcroft poll also found that only 11% view the inability to negotiate trade deals with non-EU countries as one of the "most important disadvantages of EU membership." This issue needs to be highlighted and awareness of it increased as it should be one of the first things raised in future negotiations and could be one of the deciding factors in deciding whether or not the UK should remain a member.