Britain’s hosting of this week’s Commonwealth summit was overshadowed Monday by a scandal involving longtime Caribbean immigrants threatened with deportation, distracting from an agenda of increased trade London hoped to promote ahead of Brexit.
After initially turning them down, Prime Minister Theresa May is set to meet counterparts from a dozen Caribbean states on the margins of the gathering Tuesday, amid growing anger over the treatment of the so-called Windrush generation.
After the arrival to Britain of the first group of West Indian immigrants on the ship Empire Windrush in 1948, many more followed to help rebuild the country in the wake of World War II.
The Caribbean citizens were given indefinite leave to remain, which then changed with a 1971 law — but many failed to get their papers in order and are now being treated as undocumented or illegal migrants.
Britain’s interior minister Amber Rudd apologised Monday for what she described as their “appalling” treatment and announced the creation of a new taskforce to speed up the regularisation of their immigration status.
The moves followed more than 140 British lawmakers demanding May’s government stop targetting members of the Windrush generation.
Post-Brexit trade hopes
The scandal unfolded as 53 member states began gathering in London for their biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
Born out of the former British empire, the voluntary organisation, covering a third of the world’s population, typically focuses on development and democracy, but is placing greater attention on boosting trade.
The summit proper takes place on Thursday and Friday, following three days of forums and events to lay the groundwork.
Britain hopes to use the week to promote its post-Brexit trade agenda as it prepares to quit the European Union next March.
“We have the opportunity to re-invigorate our Commonwealth partnerships and usher in a new era,” Liam Fox, Britain’s trade minister, told attendees at a summit event Monday.
He argued for “harnessing the movement of expertise, talent, goods, and capital between our nations in a way that we have not for a generation or more”.
London is going for the hard sell, hosting a reception aimed at showcasing British exports, from food and drink to the English Premier League football trophy.
It has pounced on the organisation’s analysis showing the advantages of trade between Commonwealth countries due to their common language and legal systems.
Intra-Commonwealth trade is expected to increase by at least 17 percent to around $700 billion by 2020, according to the 2018 Commonwealth Trade Review.
But overall the Commonwealth accounts for just a tenth of Britain’s trade, compared to the EU which accounts for nearly half.
In terms of goods and services trade in 2016, Britain did more business with 15 countries — nine of them in the EU — before its biggest Commonwealth trade partners Canada and India.
Prince Harry named ambassador
Queen Elizabeth II, the Head of the Commonwealth, is hosting a dinner for the leaders on Thursday at Buckingham Palace in London.
On Friday they gather in private at Windsor Castle, west of the city.
She has newly appointed her grandson Prince Harry, 33, as her Commonwealth youth ambassador.
He opened Monday’s sessions by telling youth leaders he hoped to get them working together to ensure “maximum impact” in finding solutions to global problems.
To cheers, Harry said the US actress Meghan Markle, whom he is due to wed on May 19, was “hugely excited” to be joining him in his new task.
Given its highly diverse membership, if agreements can be struck within the Commonwealth, they can likely achieve wider support.
At the last Commonwealth summit in Malta in November 2015, leaders struck a deal on climate change that helped pave the way for the Paris agreement days afterwards.
This time, the group is hoping to agree an ocean governance charter, a connectivity agenda for trade and investment, and a declaration on tackling cyber crime.