Europe and the Commonwealth: how can Britain make the most of both worlds?

Stuart Connick

When Britain began its first attempts to join the European Community in 1961, a major issue for policy-makers and public alike was the impact that the move would have on relations with Commonwealth countries. The decision to join was made in the face of protests from across the association, with the Indian government claiming that British membership would weaken existing Commonwealth links. 

In recent years, as economic growth in some Commonwealth countries has brightened and Europe’s economic outlook has become increasingly gloomy, the debate has resurfaced. 

Recognising the importance of this debate, the Royal Commonwealth Society, in association with the European Commission, brought together policy makers, civil society, diplomats and businesspeople in July for a conference on the EU and the Commonwealth. 

Chaired by Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, discussion ranged from the massive potential for increased trade between the EU and Commonwealth countries to the sources of Euroscepticism in the UK. Panellists looked at the differences between Commonwealth and European identity and examined what each organisation could learn from its counterpart. 

There was broad agreement that Britain needs to do all that it can to remain in and get the most out of both communities, with Lord Howell, former Minister of State at Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, dismissing the ‘either/or’ question by quoting veteran Labour leader James Maxton: “If you can’t ride two horses, you have no right to be in the bloody circus.” 

Questioned over what Britain can do to engage the EU more with Commonwealth countries, Geoffrey Martin, an adviser to the Commonwealth Secretary General and former head of the European Commission in London, stated that EU countries in the Commonwealth should lobby harder for the interests of their fellow Commonwealth members. This, he claimed, “would do more in a week than could be done with five years of diplomacy”. 

Panellists at this lively and informed event included Lord Howell; Geoffrey Martin; Garvin Nicholas, High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago; Michael Sippitt, chairman of Clarkslegal LLP; Vijay Krishnarayan, director of the Commonwealth Foundation; Sunder Katwala, director of British Future; Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former British Foreign Secretary; and Will Straw, associate director at the IPPR. 

To view the full events report, see:



About the author:

Stuart Connick is events assistant at The Royal Commonwealth Society


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