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The establishment and shape of the Commonwealth

The modern Commonwealth was established in April 1949 with the signing of the London Declaration.

There are now 54 countries in the Commonwealth, with a combined population of 2.4 billion.

More than 60 per cent of that population is aged 29 or under. The combined GDP of Commonwealth countries was estimated at $10.4 trillion in 2017 and was predicted to reach $13 trillion in 2020. Half of the top 20 global emerging cities are in Commonwealth countries (source: The Commonwealth, Fast facts on the Commonwealth).

Many small and developing Commonwealth countries are also among those with the lowest ecological footprint worldwide. 32 Commonwealth countries are classed as “small states”.

Commonwealth Day 2021

Commonwealth Day, which is an annual celebration of the Commonwealth of Nations, is held on the second Monday in March every year.

This year it fell on 8 March 2021 and the theme was “Delivering a Common Future”.

HM The Queen delivered a televised message on 7 March 2021 to mark the day.

Heads of Government Meeting, June 2021

Every two years, the leaders of the Commonwealth countries come together to discuss issues affecting the Commonwealth and to shape Commonwealth policies and priorities. All member states have an equal say, regardless of their size or wealth, which ensures that even the smallest countries have a voice.

The next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM 2021) is due to take place in Rwanda in June. It was originally planned for June 2020, but was delayed due to the pandemic. Rwanda and Mozambique are the only two Commonwealth countries without historic ties to the UK.

Themes from 2018 meeting

The theme for CHOGM 2021 is the same for Commonwealth Day: “Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming”.

At CHOGM 2021 leaders will discuss how to deliver the recommendations of CHOGM 2018, which was on the theme “Towards a Common Future”. Commitments in 2018 included the opportunity for at least 12 years of quality education and learning by 2030, upholding fundamental political values, preventing gender-based violence and supporting free trade.

The UK is the current Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth. The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office published the UK Commonwealth Chair-in-Office Report 2018-2020 (September 2020), with information on the delivery of the CHOGM 2018 Leaders commitments.

Before CHOGM 2020 was cancelled, the UK Government said in March 2020 that it would seek to “develop relationships with each of the Commonwealth countries in line with […] global Britain”; to encourage Commonwealth and other countries to modernise laws regarding rights for sexuality, and support the voices of smaller states.

More information on “Global Britain” can be found in the associated Library reading list.

CHOGM 2021 is expected to consider renewing the term of the current Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Baroness Scotland of Asthal. 

Brexit and the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth Secretariat states that post-Brexit “there is an opportunity for trade growth between Commonwealth countries”.

It published Brexit and Commonwealth Trade in 2017, which discussed the importance of trade between Commonwealth members and future opportunities, and potential concerns for developing countries post-Brexit, including in maintaining market access.

The Commons International Trade Committee published a report on Trade and the Commonwealth in 2018 (HC 667). A Government response was published in May 2019.

The Commons Library briefing, Statistics on UK trade with the Commonwealth (December 2020) provides trade trends between 1999 and 2019.   

The Department for International Trade states it will work with Commonwealth Members to “strengthen their engagement with the multilateral trading system” and is committed to work with the Commonwealth to “remove barriers and liberalise the global trading environment”.

The Commonwealth and the Coronavirus pandemic

In July 2020, Commonwealth Leaders from all 54 member states issued a joint statement on the pandemic and member states’ actions to fight it. This included a commitment to ensure “equitable access to quality health services and safe, effective and affordable medicines and vaccines for all”.

The Commonwealth Innovation Fund has published analysis on the impact of the pandemic on the Commonwealth. This includes a projection that numbers in extreme poverty will rise from 209.9 million (2019) to 237.1 million (2021).

There have been fears that developing counties may miss out on access to vaccines in 2021. The Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Baroness Scotland, told the United Nations Human Rights Council in February that vaccines “remain out the grasp of far too many [and] means citizens of the poorest nations may bear the brunt of hundreds of thousands of needless deaths”.

In response to a Parliamentary Question in February 2021 on the steps the UK Government is taking to support Coronavirus vaccination programmes, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office Minister, Nigel Adams, said:

The UK is committed to rapid, equitable access to safe and effective vaccines, treatments and tests globally. The UK has committed £548m for the COVAX Advanced Market Commitment to support access to COVID-19 vaccines for up to 92 developing countries, a number of which are in the Commonwealth, by contributing to the supply of 1.3 billion doses in 2021, and vaccinations for up to 500 million people.

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