The government has been accused of pursuing a “fool’s errand” through efforts to replace lost trade with the European Union after Brexit with deals with Commonwealth countries.
New analysis shows that only 3 per cent of British exports go to Commonwealth countries with whom there is no trade deal already or where Britain is not already negotiating one through membership of the EU, whereas trade with the EU amounts to 43 per cent of all UK exports.
Some Brexiteers believe the 53-nation network could hold the key to Britain’s future outside the EU, with international trade secretary Liam Fox declaring that Brexit could herald a “new era” for trade relationships with the Commonwealth.
But analysis from the House of Commons library, obtained by People’s Vote campaigners, reveals UK exports of goods and services to the Commonwealth amounted to just 8.9 per cent of exports in 2016 – roughly the same as UK exports to Germany.
It comes as Theresa May addressed a biennial meeting of senior Commonwealth figures in London, where she said the network of nations could become a beacon of free trade at a time of fragile international growth and protectionism.
Labour MP Chris Leslie, who sits on the Commons International Trade Committee, told The Independent: “These new figures underline how ludicrous it is to suggest that we need to leave the EU in order to do more trade with the Commonwealth: we have spent years improving our terms of trade with Commonwealth countries through trade deals negotiated with our EU partners.
“Crashing out of the customs union would jeopardise our existing trade with the EU and with the Commonwealth, with the only benefit being that Liam Fox is given something to do with his spare time. It is a fool’s errand.”
In a speech at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM), Ms May announced measures to make it easier for countries to trade within the network, including offering British assistance to make it easier for countries to meet international standards on goods and services.
She also unveiled a new scheme to remove barriers for women in business called “SheTrades”, as Ms May said global GDP could be increased by up to £20 trillion if women held similar roles to men in work.
The prime minister told delegates: “Freer, easier trade means stronger economies, more jobs, more choice and lower prices – and that is true here in the UK, across the Commonwealth and around the world.
“With its unique scope and global voice, such a Commonwealth can set a powerful example to the world, one that demonstrates and underlines the importance of protecting free trade and the rules-based international order.”
Mr Fox, one of the leading cabinet Brexiteers, also told a CHOGM audience the government was taking “decisive action to strengthen our post-Brexit trading relationships with our Commonwealth partners”.
Taking a veiled swipe at US president Donald Trump’s protectionist agenda, he said: “You cannot choose to have protectionism rather than free trade without there being unavoidable consequences.
“If you choose not to have global free trade, do not be surprised if you get increased mass migration. Or increased radicalisation.”
He added: “The UK believes that free and open trade is the greatest catalyst for poverty elimination and lasting economic development.
“Development should no longer be focused simply on giving and receiving aid, but on commercial partnerships and working together to realise our economic potential.”
Commonwealth secretary general Baroness Scotland said the Brexit vote was “a decision which will liberalise certain aspects and create challenges elsewhere” in the economy.
She told journalists the “Commonwealth advantage” that members gain by trading together “happens with or without the Brexit”.
She added: “I do think it’s important to remember that there are 53 countries in the Commonwealth and when we are looking at future Commonwealth trade it is obviously important that the UK is one of the biggest, if not the biggest economy.
“But it is not the only economy and we have got to look at all our 53 members and what is good for all of them and there are real opportunities with the UK having made the decision it has made.”
Leaders from 53 Commonwealth nations have descended on London for CHOGM, which runs until the end of the week with events in the capital and Windsor.