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after Elizabeth II, what future for the Commonwealth?

With 54 members, including the United Kingdom and some of its former colonies, the Commonwealth constitutes a major element of British influence in the world. Queen Elizabeth II, who resolutely defended this institution born in 1949, also remains the head of state of 15 countries. As London celebrates 70 years of his reign, many are wondering about the future of the club, especially when Prince Charles takes his place on the throne.

With its roots in the British Empire, the 54-member Commonwealth began in its current form in 1949 with the London Declaration, which recognized member states as “free and equal”, when many territories were still officially British colonies. Membership of the organization was not conditional on recognition of the British monarch as head of state.

King George VI was the first head of the political association, and Elizabeth II took over in 1952 with her accession to the throne. It remains today the monarchy of 15 Member States, 33 others being Republics and five other countries being monarchies with their own monarch. The vast majority of these states are former British colonies.

Based on free and voluntary cooperation, the organization represents a significant demographic weight, around a quarter of the world’s population. All members must share the values ​​of democracy and human rights, and be champions of youth and the environment, in particular. Beyond these principles, however, they have no obligation to each other.

They take part in a biannual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, represented by the Queen, and the Commonwealth Games, an international sporting event that takes place every four years.

“The Commonwealth was created as an alternative means of maintaining bonds of voluntary friendship and mutual benefit between nations linked by the English language and, for the most part, by their relationship to the United Kingdom as former colonies,” says Cindy McCreery, historian and senior lecturer at the University of Sydney.

“One of its main achievements is to maintain a large number of different states within it – including Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, India, the Caribbean countries as well as the former British colonies of “Africa”, adds this specialist in the history of the British royal family. “The Commonwealth is also notable because some states that left it have returned, such as South Africa, which left the organization under apartheid and returned liberated.”

Throughout her reign, Queen Elizabeth II played a crucial role in defending the Commonwealth and maintaining its influence. “The Commonwealth has always been a priority for the Queen, which is a big part of why it is still active,” said Craig Prescott, lecturer in British constitutional law at the University of Bangor, Wales.

“She has visited Commonwealth countries throughout her reign until very recently – her last trip abroad was to Malta in 2015 for the Heads of Government Meeting. She has always been a reminder of the importance of Commonwealth, whether in her Christmas speech or in her Commonwealth Day message,” adds Craig Prescott, referring to the day the Queen, as head of the organization, delivers a speech broadcast around the world after an interfaith service, the second Monday in March.

“Elizabeth was a huge influence. She took a lot of interest in leadership at Commonwealth heads of government meetings, tried to settle differences between leaders and keep people thinking that he is relevant to stay in the organization”, stresses Cindy McCreery.

Beyond a “colonial heritage”, a platform of influence for small states

Some wealthier nations in the group, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, still recognize the British Queen as their head of state. But that’s not the case for all members: Caribbean nations increasingly seem to be heading for a split with the crown. At least six states have indicated they plan to strip the Queen of that status, following Barbados, which became a Republic in late 2021.

The Jamaican Prime Minister thus defended a transition of his country to a republican regime… in full visit of Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton, in March. A trip by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to the Caribbean is widely seen as an attempt to maintain Commonwealth countries’ ties with the monarchy. But their arrival also gave rise to demonstrations in Belize and Jamaica, where the population demanded an official apology from the royal family, in particular about the slave trade, and demanded financial compensation.

>> To read also: “Why Barbados frees itself from the British crown”

Even if some micro-states are preparing to reject the monarchy, symbol of a colonial past they no longer want, staying in the Commonwealth could be beneficial, while continuing to benefit from certain advantages.

“When Barbados became a Republic, it no longer had the Queen as its Head of State, but that did not change its relationship with the Commonwealth. We don’t see countries leaving the Commonwealth en masse when they become Republics”, analyzes Cindy McCreery.

“Alone, the small states of the Caribbean would have very little weight on the international chessboard. The Commonwealth is therefore their main means of making themselves heard: the organization allows these small states to come together and exercise a greater influence on issues such as climate change, all in the spirit of friendship,” she adds. “It’s significant that 54 nations were signed up for this project. It’s not just a colonial legacy.”

The fight against climate change as an objective?

While the United Kingdom celebrates until Sunday June 5 the platinum jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, the 70th anniversary of her reign, many specialists are wondering what the Commonwealth evoked when Prince Charles, the heir to the throne of England, takes the head of the organization.

The Commonwealth was judged for its inefficiency and its inability to accompany major political changes. Many have suggested that the time has come to end it.

“Currently the Commonwealth’s biggest focus is on tackling climate change, as many countries in the organization are likely to suffer greatly from its effects. The organization could really have a role to play, for example in helping countries to achieve carbon neutrality”, explains Craig Prescott.

“Prince Charles has always expressed a keen interest in the issue of climate change, which could be of interest to members of the Commonwealth. But this may require rethinking the structure of the organization – its resources and its capacities. there hasn’t really been any political will to make it grow, perhaps because it has been supplanted by other international organizations and alliances, like the G20, quite simply,” he adds.

“I could bet that Charles will be much more interventionist on issues such as the environment and youth”, dares the researcher. “Charles may have the ability to do more than Elizabeth because he has significant experience working with organizations working in these areas.”

According to the historian, the Commonwealth has a future and a potential that is not necessarily tied to the Queen.

At the service of “Global Britain”?

According to many observers, Australia could be the next country in the group to become a Republic: in his government, the new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has appointed a Minister Delegate for the Republic.

“I think more of the Commonwealth will become Republics, but that has more to do with their constitutional relationship with the UK than their membership in the organization. is a good organization to be part of, even if only as a sideline. The Commonwealth has potential, although I’m not sure it will achieve its goal.”

For the Conservatives in power in London, closer engagement with the Commonwealth could help the UK in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “Global Britain” strategy. The latter consisted of reconnecting with “old friends and new allies” in a post-Brexit world. But its success has yet to be proven.

This article was adapted from the English original by Henrique Valadares.


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