montage of participants at Round Table conferenceClockwise: Rt. Hon. Patricia Scotland, Amitav Banerji, Joanna Newman, Philip Parnham, Victoria Schofield, Josephine Ojiambo, Mark Robinson, Lars Waldorf, H.E. Yamina Claris Karitanyi, Kayode Soyinka, audience. [photos: Debbie Ransome]

Far from the Westminster bubble’s Brexit frenzy and Marlborough House’s concerns about day-to-day Commonwealth administration, a cross-section of Commonwealth aficionados gathered in Cambridge in early January to discuss the Commonwealth in 2019 and the challenges on the road to CHOGM 2020 in Kigali, Rwanda.

The event was a Round Table conference entitled The Commonwealth in 2019: Challenges and Opportunities. It was one in a series of half-term assessments organised by the Round Table in between the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGMs).

Diplomats, officials, former staffers, academics, representatives of NGOs, and friends and students of the Commonwealth met at Clare College, Cambridge, to explore issues ranging from the London CHOGM 2018 and the UK as Chair-in-Office to the Commonwealth dimensions of Brexit and Rwanda’s plans to host CHOGM 2020.

An opening session with the UK Commonwealth Envoy, Philip Parham, kicked off discussions on the UK’s role as Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth since the 2018 CHOGM. Under Chatham House rules, participants discussed funding, new programmes, the role of Commonwealth accredited organisations, the ability of Commonwealth member states to work together on the global stage and how the Commonwealth Secretariat (ComSec) is coping during a time of reduced funding.

Participants spoke of the Commonwealth remaining “a network that people still want to join”, whether ComSec was on the right course under the current high-level review of its work and how to make the most of the potential of Kigali 2020.

SG’s Q&A

In the following session, deemed by participants as one of the most frank discussions for some time with a Commonwealth Secretary General, Patricia Scotland discarded her prepared speech, made a few points and then sat down to take part in a one-hour Q&A session with participants.

In an audience which included well wishers and critics, Baroness Scotland fielded questions on ComSec funding and restructuring, partnerships, the latest initiatives on climate change, trade, election monitoring, and legal and other support for Commonwealth countries, closer relations with Commonwealth associations, the process for countries to rejoin the Commonwealth, the nervousness of Commonwealth countries about Brexit and a possibly increased role for the Commonwealth Secretariat with the European Union after Brexit.

The afternoon session on 8 January saw some further frank discussions about the London CHOGM and the UK as the current Commonwealth Chair.

Speakers and participants from the floor explored the length of time for a term as Chair-in-Office, and the problems for the UK as Chair with both the legacy of empire and the preoccupation with Brexit. They discussed how to make full use of other resources available before, during and after CHOGMs, such as in-depth briefings for Commonwealth parliamentarians. The session also looked at embracing all parts of the Commonwealth demographic – from young to old – as well as making sure that travel and visa issues are dealt with in order to ease access to CHOGMs.

Commonwealth institutions

Day two’s first session on Commonwealth institutions and whether they are fit for purpose looked at how to allow Commonwealth leaders more time for in-depth discussion at their summits. Speakers and participants pointed out that if better use was not made of the CHOGM period, there would continue to be a fall-off in the number of leaders attending. Prior to the royal attraction of the London CHOGM, the number of leaders of the 53-nation grouping attending CHOGMs had fallen to 34 in Trinidad & Tobago, 35 in Australia and 31 in Malta. Speakers pointed out that if future CHOGMs were not going to “limp on”, there needed to be a change in the time allocated to executive sessions outside opening and closing ceremonies and other formalities. Speakers outlined the pressure on Commonwealth leaders to account for their visits to taxpayers back home which made it difficult when CHOGMs could be seen as mere “jamborees”. Participants discussed how to make CHOGMs “sincerely valuable”.

Frank discussion about the current and future role of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) also took place during the discussion on institutions. There was an outline of the revamped electoral observer mission process to allow for a “continuum” of electoral support before, during and after national elections. Speakers also demonstrated how quiet support after difficult elections had managed to “help bring the temperature down” in recent situations.

In the post-Brexit era

Participants did not pull the punches in the following session on Brexit.  Comments from the floor and the podium spoke of the UK approach to the Commonwealth as sometimes “self indulgent”, a possible failure if the UK tried to view the Commonwealth as another post-Brexit instrument, a challenge for the two Commonwealth countries remaining in the European Union, the difficulties Brexit posed for the UK’s overseas territories and the need for Commonwealth nations with EU trade, aid and grant ties to nurture fresh relations with the EU as the prospect of Brexit loomed. Analysts charted how Commonwealth countries had already started reconfiguring their ties with one another and with the EU in the face of the short term “uncertainty” of Brexit.

Looking to 2020

The final session, Fast Forward to Kigali? Looking to the 2020 Rwanda CHOGM, kept to the same level of frank exchange on the Commonwealth’s expectations of Rwanda and Africa’s hosting of the Commonwealth summit. Speakers pointed to a new generation of Africans who did not see the UK as a key connection, the need for a “respectful” relationship with Africa and Rwanda’s own development and human rights record. Others pointed to the need for early planning and speculated on what Rwanda hoped to get out of the 2020 CHOGM. One speaker referred to a “CHOGM that has purpose” – a phrase that closed the conference for those on the road to Kigali and onto trains out of Cambridge.

A full record of the conference proceedings will be available to conference participants in the near future. Featured articles, perspectives and extracts from speeches will be posted regularly on the Round Table website over the next few weeks.

Related links

CHOGM 2018 outcomes by Richard Bourne

CHOGM 2018: Views of the former insider – by Amitav Barnerji

UK reports on five months as Commonwealth Chair

Why the Commonwealth’s future is “on the way up” – a discussion with Peter Marshall

Brexit: Can the Commonwealth fill the gap – Peter Clegg