The Commonwealth is an association of 56 member States. It is composed of 15 kingdoms (including the UK) that recognize the British ruler as their head of State, 5 kingdoms with their own monarchy, and 36 republics. We are talking about a quarter of the world’s land mass and a population of 2,5 billion people, which nowadays represents almost a third of humanity. Most of these members were former British colonies or territories. It includes advanced and developing countries, small states, and island nations from all over the world. They are all seen as having an “equal say” in the union’s diplomacy.
The Member countries share common things, such as language (English), history, and culture. They also agree to respect Commonwealth Chart’s values and principles (democracy, human rights, powers separation, non-discrimination…) …
“56 countries working together for prosperity, democracy and peace”
The modern Commonwealth was officially formed in 1949 (replacing the British Commonwealth of Nations between the British Empire and his dominions), with the signing of the London Declaration. In a decolonization context, the British Empire aimed for maintaining good relationships with countries that had once been part of their colonies. These realms were considered “free and equal”. It is also a way to foster international cooperation and economic and trade links between them. According to the Commonwealth’s official figures, bilateral costs for trading partners in member countries are on average 21 % less than those in non-members. Additionally, Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian citizens can apply for a “working holiday visa,” which allows people aged between 18 and 30 to work in the United Kingdom.
Commonwealth countries, aided by more than 80 organizations such as the Commonwealth Secretariat, work on all members’ behalf to promote development, democracy, justice, and peace. They also affirm being a voice for the small states and acting against inequalities and climate change. The Commonwealth is also a way for countries to gain visibility in the international scene. It is the case for African countries (most of the member states are from the African continent). In June 2022, Gabon and Togo have become the 55th and the 56th countries to join the Commonwealth. They had, however, no historical ties with the United Kingdom.
Elizabeth II and the Commonwealth
The British monarch rules over 140 million subjects over the 15 kingdoms. This title does not give any real power, it is more of a symbolic and unifying role. As Head, the ruler personally reinforces the links by which the Commonwealth joins people together worldwide speaking. One of the ways of strengthening these relations is through regular Commonwealth visits and events for example.
During her rule, from 1952 to 2022, Elizabeth II consecrated a lot of time to the Commonwealth. She attended all meetings and traveled more than two hundred times in the Commonwealth countries. She also almost yearly attended the Commonwealth Day celebrations in London (on the second Monday in March)
Already as a princess, she placed her hopes on the association in a post-Second World context War. It was in Cape Town, on her 21st birthday in 1947, that Princess Elizabeth took an oath to the union. “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong”.
This “family of nations” as Elizabeth II liked to call it changed significantly during her reign. Several realms become independent. She often attended independence events marking the transition from a kingdom to a republic.
Between independentist and republican wills
Many countries aspire to be more self-sufficient from the British Crown. The requests were already present before Elizabeth II’s death but now are more marked.
The greatest example is Barbados which in November 2021 proclaimed itself a republic. They are, however, still part of the Commonwealth. Prince Charles attended the Inauguration ceremony
In April 2022, an Angus Reid Institute poll found that 51 % of Canadians were willing to abandon the British monarchy. That rejection is stronger in Quebec, with 71% of Quebecers in favor of leaving the Commonwealth.
Shortly after the confirmation of Charles III as the new sovereign, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda announced his intention to hold a referendum about a transition to a republican model within the next three years.
Jamaica also thinks to become a republic. On an official visit to Kingston, the Jamaican Prime Minister shared with Prince William and Princess Kate their will to become a republic. This was something said “inevitable.”
We can also refer to members as Grenada, Belize, or Australia for considering a regime’s transition.
The deep scars of the colonization
There are still many debates about UK’s colonial past. Therefore, requests for reparations, restitutions, and apologies have been made. The former British Empire is pointed out for its actions, but also its inaction. The organization defends many good causes. But, in fact, the member was not as exemplary.
In Australia, the Aborigines, decimated by British colonization, continued to suffer severe discrimination under Elizabeth II’s rule. They were deprived of the right to vote in federal elections until 1962 and were victims of a policy of assimilation in the name of which thousands of children were torn from their parents until the 1970s. They reproach the former Queen’s inaction.
Some countries still asking for apologies for slavery and its consequences. It is mostly the case in Caribbean and African populations, which is one of the reasons why some of them wish to cut ties, such as Jamaica.
What awaits Charles III and the Commonwealth?
The death of Elizabeth II might not mean the disappearance of the Commonwealth, although it is exposed to differences. As Charles III takes over the leadership of the Commonwealth, new challenges are imposed on him, in order to maintain unity and keep the organization attractive. It is for the newcomers, like Mozambique which joined in 1995, Rwanda in 2009, and Togo and Gabon in 2022, an instrument of “soft power” and a stepping stone for diplomacy. Academic and professional exchanges between the former British Empire and the other members still remain abundant.
The new Head has the purpose to maintain the union’s diplomacy. He welcomed on October 20th, 2022 the Togolese president Faure Gnassingbé at Buckingham Palace. Togo, as the newest member country of the organization, has now its flag officially raised in the Commonwealth siege. However, compared to the European Union that the UK left in 2020, the Commonwealth cannot be considered an “effective organization”, neither economically nor politically. With a budget of only £25.2 million (€28.8 million) for the year 2021, the organization does not allow great ambitions.