With the Queen gone, the Commonwealth, an intergovernmental organization made up of 56 states, now faces an uncertain future in the hands of King Charles III. Often criticized for being a facade without substance, the Commonwealth is nonetheless a means for certain African states to find a place for themselves on the international scene.
The legacy that Elizabeth II leaves to the world extends far beyond the borders from the United Kingdom. Vestige of “the Empire on which the sun never sets”, the Commonwealth remains without doubt one of the key emblems of his reign. If it was thought of as a major tool of cultural influence and diplomacy for the United Kingdom at the time of its creation, the Commonwealth has now become a primarily symbolic intergovernmental organization, the usefulness of which is regularly questioned. At its head during her 70 years on the throne, the late sovereign now passes the torch to King Charles III.
The organization has 56 member states spread over five continents, including 15 countries recognizing the British sovereign as the sole monarch and head of state, including Australia, Canada, Jamaica and New Zealand.
Officially constituted in 1949, the Commonwealth was born from the waves of decolonization of its empire, led by a strategist and pragmatic queen. “ She had the intelligence to give a new impetus to the Commonwealth by agreeing to integrate independent States and republics. It was she who gave the meaning to the Commonwealth that we know today »underlines Cécile Perrot, lecturer at the University of Rennes 2.
Throughout her years as Queen of England, she forged close ties with the leaders of decolonized member countries, while providing them with a platform to be seen and heard. One reason why many African countries are gradually trying to integrate the English-speaking club.
Limited functioning and lack of credibility
Depicted as a showcase of the good understanding between the United Kingdom and its former colonial empire, is the Commonwealth today hiding an empty shell? “The Commonwealth is very keen to show that it respects the sovereignty of all its members to avoid accusations of neo-colonialism, which greatly limits its field of action”says Adrien Rodd, lecturer in British civilization at the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin.
At summits held every two years, the leaders of the 56 member states meet to decide on common priorities. Except that the Commonwealth finds itself faced with very heterogeneous States with sometimes divergent interests, which prevent it from proposing ambitious actions and constrain it to limited results. “During the second half of the 20th century, he had managed to find priorities in the diplomatic field, in particular by mobilizing the international community to put pressure against the apartheid regime in South Africa.details Adrien Rodd. But since the early 1990s, the Commonwealth has really been looking for a purpose. »
The criticisms don’t stop there. The Commonwealth suffers from a severe lack of credibility to enforce its values. “It has very few means to constrain its member states, because of respect for sovereignty”, adds the specialist. One of the most striking examples for Adrien Rodd: the acceptance of Rwanda’s candidacy in 2009, while the Commonwealth Rights Initiative, an internal NGO that promotes the defense of human rights, had drawn up a very critical report against the practices of Paul Kagame’s government. The association recommended rejecting the country’s application, stressing that accepting such a government as a member would suggest that the Commonwealth does not take its values seriously. Rwanda nevertheless joined the organization the same year.
For some African countries, a chance to be heard
South Africa, Cameroon, Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria are among the 56 members of the Commonwealth. In June 2022, Gabon and Togo join the organization, thirteen years after Rwanda. Zimbabwe formalized its request in 2018 to rejoin the group, having first left in 2003.
What about those African countries wishing to join the Commonwealth, despite criticism of its lack of effectiveness? For Adrien Rodd, the answer is clear: the Commonwealth represents the possibility of being heard at the level of an international institution. “Small developing countries get much more out of it than rich countries. They have access to concrete help, in the form of experts and advisers sent to their countries. But above all they have the opportunity to meet other Heads of State= and to express their needs at summits. Even if its field of action is very limited, the Commonwealth remains a vehicle for expressing the priorities of small states. »
A place within the Commonwealth therefore makes it possible to add a string to the bow of its foreign policy, but also to develop relations with the English-speaking world. “It is a meeting place, which allows you to establish your influence abroad and which offers certain important diplomatic and commercial outlets”argues Cécile Perrot.
Visits by the royal family to Commonwealth countries and former British colonies are nonetheless sometimes tense. Of the protests had erupted during the visit of Prince William and Kate in Jamaica last March, demanding an apology for the role played by the monarchy in the slave trade in the past.
Despite the Commonwealth’s criticism of its colonial heritage, Adrien Rodd and Cécile Perrot agree that the United Kingdom has not retained the same degree of tension as France in its relations with its former African colonies. “The UK has had a faster and smoother decolonization. With less hostility, and less strong resentments”says Cécile Perrot.“ There is no British military presence, less economic and commercial presence in the former colonies. There is no equivalent to “Françafrique” for the United Kingdom”adds Adrien Rodd.
What future for the Commonwealth, without its icon?
Will King Charles III be able to take over the reins of such a world organization? The new sovereign, clearly less popular than his mother, faces a main challenge: to depersonalize the Commonwealth, that Elizabeth II had forged around her popularity. “The question arises especially for the 15 countries that recognize the monarch as head of state. His death is likely to reinvigorate existing republican movements in Australia or Canada, which question the legitimacy of the British monarch to become their head of state.”emphasizes Cécile Perrot.
The deceased’s personal ties with other leaders, forged after decades of meetings and visits, will certainly be more difficult for her successor son to consolidate. “Charles III does not have the emotional bond and the respect that existed for his mother”says Adrien Rodd.
Despite everything, Cécile Perrot does not consider the death of the queen as the end of the Commonwealth. “It has a cultural and diplomatic base that is too entrenched to disappear. But it remains to be seen whether this institution will be able to serve as an instrument of power, as the post-Brexit United Kingdom seems to wish. »
The Conservative government of Boris Johnson had indeed praised the merits of the Commonwealth after Brexit, with its foreign policy “Global Britain”formalized in 2021, to regain commercial relations with partners other than the European Union. “Brexit supporters expect a lot from these links, to reconnect with a certain past position. It remains to be seen whether this projection towards the Commonwealth countries is more fantasy than reality.asks Cécile Perrot.