LONDON (AP) — The flags of more than 50 nations are flying outside Buckingham Palace as Queen Elizabeth II prepares to welcome leaders from the Commonwealth, an international club with an eclectic membership, an identity problem and an uncertain future.
The Commonwealth, an association of the U.K. and its former colonies, includes 53 countries, from populous India to tiny Tuvalu, held together loosely by historic ties, the English language and affection for the queen, who turns 92 on Saturday and has no designated successor as head of the group.
Philip Murphy, director of the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies, wrote in the Guardian newspaper the group was like “a grandfather clock that has been in the family for generations. It hasn’t told the right time for decades, but no one has the heart to take such a treasured heirloom to the (dump).”
Yet the old piece of furniture is getting a polish and a tuneup. With the U.K. set to leave the European Union next year, British authorities see the Commonwealth as a potential cornerstone of post-Brexit “global Britain.”
Britain is devoting both royal pomp and political capital to the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which is being held in London for the first time in two decades.
The queen is hosting a Buckingham Palace dinner on Thursday, and has enthusiastically backed the “Commonwealth Canopy,” a forest conservation plan for all member nations.
Charismatic younger royals including Prince Harry and his fiancee Meghan Markle have been deployed to Commonwealth-related events with young people, businesses and volunteer groups.
Commonwealth leaders will spend Friday discussing issues such as trade, climate change, terrorism and cybersecurity in the grand surroundings of Windsor Castle, west of London.
Government leaders including India’s Narendra Modi, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Jamaica’s Andrew Holness have all traipsed into 10 Downing St. for meetings with British Prime Minister Theresa May.
As Britain leaves the EU and its borderless single market for goods and services, it is eager to bolster trade with the Commonwealth, which includes wealthy industrialized nations such as Australia and Canada as well as huge, fast-growing India.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said this week that Brexit could revitalize the Commonwealth and “usher in a new era, harnessing the movement of expertise, talent, goods and capital between our nations in a way that we have not done for a generation or more.”
Others are skeptical.
In 2017, 44 percent of British exports went to the EU and just 9 percent to Commonwealth countries. Even if intra-Commonwealth trade almost doubles by 2020, as a recent report from the organization predicted, it would still leave a big trading gap for British exporters.
Murphy calls the promise of a Commonwealth economic boost “snake oil” from pro-Brexit campaigners.
Still, some say the Commonwealth could provide a platform for British diplomatic and cultural clout after it leaves the EU.
Michael Lake, director of the Royal Commonwealth Society charity, said the Commonwealth could be a “useful and productive stepping stone for the development of a new soft-power agenda.”
“It is absolutely not a replacement for Europe. But if you are looking to reshape your foreign policy, it would be perverse to think that the Commonwealth wasn’t a useful element in that,” he said.
But Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth has been clouded by diplomatic missteps and the legacy of empire. May had to apologize this week after it emerged that some people who came to the U.K. from Caribbean decades ago had been refused medical care in Britain or threatened with deportation because they could not produce paperwork to show their right to residence.
The treatment of the “Windrush generation” — named for the ship Empire Windrush, which brought the first big group of post-war Caribbean immigrants to Britain in 1948 — has strained Commonwealth relations just as Britain is trying to strengthen them.
Gay-rights activists will be protesting the summit, urging the repeal of laws against homosexuality that are in force in more than 30 Commonwealth countries — in many cases, introduced under British rule.
May said Tuesday that Britain deeply regretted its role in passing anti-gay laws.
“I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country,” she said. “They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.”
The Commonwealth is officially committed to democracy and human rights, but its rights record is mixed. Many look with pride on the organization’s role in the 1970s and ’80s in trying to end apartheid in South Africa.
But many Commonwealth nations have been plagued by corruption or destabilized by coups. Zimbabwe’s former president, Robert Mugabe, pulled his country out of the group in 2003 after it was suspended for widespread human rights abuses. Gambia quit in 2013, calling the Commonwealth a “neocolonial institution.” It rejoined earlier this year.
Still, the Commonwealth provides support for democracy and corruption-fighting, and gives its smaller members the chance to be part of an international network. Attempts to expand the club beyond former British colonies have had modest success, with Mozambique and Rwanda joining in recent years.
The survival of the Commonwealth owes much to the commitment of the queen, who has visited almost every member country — often multiple times — over her 66-year-reign.
Her son Prince Charles is heir to the British throne, but will not automatically succeed her as the organization’s head. Commonwealth officials say the heads of government and secretary-general will decide who should head the group next, but have not said when or how that will take place.
Lake thinks “there is a widely held view that when the time comes Charles would be an able and widely accepted successor” — but there’s no guarantee.
Murphy said the Commonwealth today is held together by “a kind of inertia, the fact that it’s probably more trouble to wind it up than to keep going.”
But he said he wouldn’t write it off just yet.
“It’s sort of like the Holy Roman Empire — international organizations can survive long beyond their natural expiry date,” Murphy said.
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