(Bloomberg) -- It’s 21 years since the Commonwealth, the group of countries that used to make up the British Empire, met in Britain.
Then the U.K. had an ardently Europhile leader, Tony Blair, basking in the glory of a record-breaking win, and a queen whose popularity was in crisis over her response to the death of Princess Diana.
This time, it’s the prime minister who’s in trouble, and the monarch who could be coming to the rescue as the nation parts ways with the European Union.
Theresa May, stung by a disastrous election gamble, is trying to work out how to pull off Brexit without damaging the economy. To those in favor of the divorce, trade agreements with Commonwealth countries are part of the solution, and Queen Elizabeth II could be a helper in delivering those deals.
In an article last month about the summit, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson described the rapturous reception the Queen had had at a previous meeting in Uganda in 2007. “I cannot imagine any head of state except the Queen -- or any international organisation except the Commonwealth -- stirring such popular enthusiasm,” Johnson wrote. “A key theme of the London summit will be how to boost trade within the Commonwealth.”
This buttering-up will continue on Thursday as May, addressing the Queen in front of assembled leaders in Buckingham Place, will say that in the Commonwealth “the voice of the smallest member country is worth precisely as much as that of the largest.”
The government will hope that the visiting dignitaries believe this is a more accurate reflection of the government’s view than Johnson’s 2002 description of the Commonwealth as “flag-waving piccaninnies.”
Yet the idea that some members of the Commonwealth are more equal than others was given extra weight by a scandal in May’s government that blew up as the summit was starting.
The Home Office, which May ran from 2010 until 2016, said it had locked up and possibly deported people who had immigrated from former colonies decades earlier. May, who had brushed the issue aside a few weeks earlier, had to call an emergency meeting to tell her fellow leaders she was “genuinely sorry.”
A deeper problem for May is that, even if these diplomatic problems are brushed aside -- and Her Majesty’s charms win Commonwealth countries round -- there just aren’t enough of them. In 2015, these former colonies accounted for 9 percent of U.K. exports while the EU accounts for more than 40 percent.
Pawel Swidlicki, Brexit analyst at communications consultancy Edelman, bursts some bubbles.
“For starters, the U.K. already trades with most Commonwealth countries on preferential terms,” he said. “Deals with Australia and New Zealand would be beneficial but hardly game-changers, while negotiations with India will be bedevilled by tricky issues like copyright and immigration.”
He adds: “Moreover, as has become increasingly clear recently, trade cannot be divorced from politics, be it food quality standards or offshoring of manufacturing jobs. Deeper integration entails difficult domestic compromises and the Commonwealth is neither sufficiently politically and economically coherent nor institutionally equipped for this to happen.”
And finally, he said “there has been no evidence that other Commonwealth nations are looking to the U.K. to provide the sort of leadership that could even make this a possibility.”
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