When Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, urged voters in Britain considering Brexit to visit war cemeteries – as if allowing Brussels to mandate the power of vacuum cleaners is the only thing keeping Britain and Belgium from going to war with each other – most people with any sense of history were appalled.
Leave aside the decidedly questionable results of recent EU foreign policy adventures in the Balkans and Ukraine; any Briton walking among the neat rows of Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstones planted around the world would not be reminded of Brussels’ non-existent role in winning peace in Europe, but of the role played by old friends in far-flung lands in preserving us from European tyranny.
“I often wonder what has come over us”, asked Field Marshal Montgomery, who won our first great victories over that tyranny in the North African desert, “that we want to tie ourselves in with the nations of Continental Europe and chuck the Commonwealth overboard.”
Have we honoured the men of the Burma Regiment and the King’s African Rifles who lie in President Juncker’s cemeteries by submitting to the forty-year disgrace that is the European Union Common Agricultural Policy, which has ruined hundreds of thousands of farmers in Commonweath countries and artificially deprived them of tens of billions in lost trade, all while driving up prices for consumers here in Britain?
Does the European Union’s tariff regime and insular, protectionist trade policy honour the tradition of openness and internationalism which made us a leading actor on the world stage, and provided the foundation for our present wealth?
Who can doubt that our commercial links to the rapidly growing economies of the Commonwealth would not be far stronger had we not our power to strike bilateral trade deals and pursue an independent position at the World Trade Organisation to Brussels? The EU has managed to conclude free trade agreements with just 18 out of more than 50 Commonwealth nations since 1973. The ink would have been dry on lucrative deals with our old partners in countries like Australia, Canada and India decades ago if it had been up to us.
When we talk about Brexit being a an opportunity to deepen our historic ties with this uniquely special network, however, we often found ourselves being subjected to the sneering derision of the Euro-snobs, who accuse us harking back to a lost golden age of imperial power.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Commonwealth, while rooted in a shared history, strengthened by the English language and deepened by a common culture, is more vibrant than ever in the modern day, despite the limitations which EU membership places on our engagement with it.
The Commonwealth Secretariat supports a huge range of initiatives to support peace-making and democracy-building, the rule of law, economic development, human development, public sector development and sustainable development.
The Association of Commonwealth Universities, linking 535 higher education institutions around the world, has produced a steady stream of world-leading scientists, heads of government and even a certain Canadian governor of the Bank of England through its horizon-expanding Commonwealth Scholarships programme.
The Commonwealth Business Council seeks to enhance the dense web of commercial and family links shared between Commonwealth members, who are estimated to trade with each other up to 50 per cent more with one another than they typically do with non-members, despite the roadblocks bodies like the EU often place between them in terms of concluding formal trade agreements.
One of the Commonwealth’s most impressive new initiatives is the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, a huge network of forest conservation initiatives spread throughout all 53 nations of the Commonwealth which will be supported by the multi-national team of scientists, foresters and policy-makers who make up the Commonwealth Forestry Association.
Based on voluntary collaboration and developing best practice for the common good, the Commonwealth way of doing things is a million miles from the way things work in the EU, which attempts to meet its objectives through binding regulations and financial penalties. Member States with wholly different goals caucus against one another in the European Council, while an unelected and high-handed European Commission does all in its power to bend recalcitrant states to its will.
Truthfully, it is the Brussels model, based on the rule of the rule of the strong and built upon an economic model which seeks to keep developing countries from advancing beyond their role as providers of raw materials, which harks back to the days of empire.
It is the seemingly old-fashioned Commonwealth, as a truly diverse, non-coercive forum where equal partners can come together to work to their mutual advantage, which points the way to the future, and on June 23rd we should seize the opportunity to embrace it.
The Rt. Hon. Andrew Wigmore is a diplomat attached to the Belizean High Commission in London.