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The Commission as trade negotiator (III): The sidelining of the Commonwealth

The evidence in the Regional Trade Agreements Information System (RTAIS) in the WTO database shows that the European Commission has been very slow to open trade negotiations with Commonwealth countries. The first agreement to come into force was that with South Africa in 2000, some 27 years after UK accession, and the second with members of the Cariforum group of Caribbean countries in 2008.[1]

The 17 Commonwealth countries with which the EU currently has some kind of trade agreement in force are, in terms of their GDP, a small minority of the Commonwealth. These countries had an aggregate GDP in 2014 of just $473.9billion. Those with which it does not have an agreement in force are very nearly sixteen times larger, and in 2014 had an aggregate GDP of $7,491.3billion. This is only a little short of the aggregate GDP of all the countries with which the EU has negotiated agreements since 1973 ($7,713.8billion). For several reasons this contrast comes as a shock, first of all because it is seldom mentioned. But it is also counter-intuitive.

Supposedly, the UK has always pressed the case for increased free trade within the EU. One would have thought it would have done so with especial vigour on behalf of Commonwealth countries. Ties of kin, sentiment and trade with most of them long predate the Treaty of Rome, and the UK must have felt an additional obligation after leaving them to cope with the EU’s common external tariff. One would therefore expect the UK government to have continuously pressed the case for negotiating with them, helped perhaps by Malta and Cyprus, the two other Commonwealth EU members, and for the CBI and trade associations to have been especially keen to build on long-standing ties.

The evidence suggests that the reasoning behind these expectations is mistaken. UK ministers have often congratulated themselves for pushing the EU in a more outward-looking and trade liberalizing direction. However there is no evidence that they have pressed the case for agreements with Commonwealth members with any particular enthusiasm. Whenever deals have been pushed for, the UK has failed miserably. Two recent trade commissioners have been British: Peter Mandelson (2004-8) and Catherine Ashton (2008-9). Neither displayed any particular interest in, or obligation towards, the Commonwealth, and perhaps were not allowed to do so by virtue of their oath of office.

The CBI and many trade federations have been equally forgetful and inert. They enthused about surrendering trade negotiations to the European Commission when giving evidence to the FCO Balance of Competences review. Only one federation among dozens, the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) raised any questions about the European Commission’s negotiating priorities and strategy. It observed that the rationale for selecting countries for EU agreements is unclear, and noted that several important emerging markets seem to be missing from the information supplied, for example both Australia and New Zealand.[2]

Chapter 34 - table 1


An inescapable conclusion: the minimal British influence on European Commission trade strategy

The three preceding chapters lead to one inescapable conclusion: UK influence on the EU trade agenda and strategy has been minimal.

For some reason, many British participants and observers claim the opposite. Maybe this is because they attend many meetings in Brussels, are heard politely, and mistake this for influence, the actual negotiating priorities and strategy of the Commission.

The facts however do not respond to warm words and they cannot be misled. It is inconceivable that a trade policy that had been significantly influenced by the British opinion, whether from exporters, officials, MEPs, the press or the wider public could possibly have given priority to agreements i) with so many smaller countries, ii) that neglected services, iii) and that sidelined the Commonwealth.


[1] The Cariform states are Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Surinam, Trinidad, Tobago, and the Dominican Republic.

[2] The Balance of Competences Trade & Investment.


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