Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Now, with CHOGM upon us, it might be a good time to think about the relevance of the Commonwealth, especially to us here in the Caribbean. After all, the Commonwealth is the successor to the British Commonwealth, which in turn was the successor to the British Empire... that global community owned by Great Britain upon which the sun never set! The Empire existed solely for the benefit of the mother country: England. The wealth of the various colonies was systematically transferred back to England, much to the chagrin of many colonists who for a very long time could do absolutely nothing about it.

When after the Second World War the Empire started to fall apart and important colonies like India began to demand (and receive) their independence, the clever British set up the British Commonwealth essentially as a closed market in which goods from the member States would be traded within the system at preferential rates and tariffs. Later on many of the newborn independent States felt that the term “British” ought to be dropped, but that everything should stay the same as regards trade.

So said, so done, until the end of the twentieth century/beginning of the twenty-first. You see, by this time Great Britain (which now preferred the appellation “United Kingdom”) had joined the European Economic Community, which morphed into the European Community, and eventually ended up as the European Union (or ‘EU’). The boys and girls in the EU’s headquarters together with European politicians from every major country including the UK decided that they needed to have a strong internal free market where goods and services from member countries of the EU could cross borders easily and with a minimum of fuss and trade tariffs. It was essential therefore to restrict access of goods and services to the EU from non-member States.

And this is what has spelled the effective death knell of the Commonwealth; for goods and services from Commonwealth countries no longer enjoy preferential access to British markets and the EU rules and regulations for trading with that community have made it harder and harder for small States, especially those in the Caribbean, to survive. Trinidad & Tobago, with its oil and gas, is probably the best placed of all the islands to withstand the changing gale force economic winds that have been blowing around the world because of the world economic meltdown and the recent EU rules that have forced us to open our markets to very unfair competition from European goods and services (and that is another story).

But the real question for us to ask today is: what benefits exactly do we get from the Commonwealth today (as opposed to what we used to get)? How does being a member of the Commonwealth help the little shopkeeper in San Fernando or Mayaro? Does it really provide a forum for our voices to be heard, or is it just a big “talk shop” where the big countries like the UK, Canada, Australia, etc., simply get together and let the little boys talk and then they (the big boys) go and do what they like? For example, the big thing internationally right now is climate change. Will the views of the small island States really be taken on board and be represented at Copenhagen next month?

What is all this costing us and what are the bench marks that we ought to be using to see if we are getting value for money? Or, put another way, is membership in the Commonwealth really worth our while? Why? We should be looking at this……but we are not.

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