Commonwealth Day: Why Does It Matter To The U.K.'s Brexit Camp?

13/10/2015_Narendra Modi
British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, center, in London, November 13, 2015. Anti-EU campaigners want closer ties to Commonwealth states. Justin Tallis/Pool/Reuters

Commonwealth Day is held annually on the second Monday in March to promote cooperation and mutual respect within the Commonwealth group of countries formed from part of Britain's erstwhile empire.

It's usually a rather dry affair. But with Britain's referendum on EU membership approaching on June 23, the event on March 14 has got those campaigning for Britain's exit from the EU—or Brexit—very excited, and Commonwealth Day has burst into the British political debate. "Outside the EU, the world is our oyster, and the Commonwealth remains that precious pearl within," said James Carver, Commonwealth spokesman for the Euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), in a statement on the party's website.

So what's the significance of the Commonwealth for the EU referendum campaign?

At the heart of the debate over the EU is trade. In 2014, the bloc accounted for 44.6 percent of U.K. exports of goods and services. Britain's membership of the EU makes it easy to trade with the other 27 member states. When the anti-EU camp says the country should strike out on its own, those who favor staying in invariably ask where they'd look to for trading partners if the country left.

One popular riposte to that has long been the idea that, in the event of a Brexit, Britain could strengthen its ties with the other 52 Commonwealth countries. The informal group includes key emerging markets like India and South Africa, and Brexit campaign Leave.EU claims the combined GDP of its economies is about $17 trillion.

Ideas for greater cooperation have included a suggestion for a freedom of movement arrangement between Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The idea was supported by 58 percent of the public in a 2015 YouGov poll. Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who recently came out in support of a Brexit, has previously backed the idea of a bilateral freedom of movement deal between the U.K. and Australia.

Some of the more anti-immigration sections of the Brexit lobby have also claimed in the past that Commonwealth countries are culturally more similar to Britain than many European ones, and therefore that immigration from these places is somehow less damaging. "I do think, naturally, that people from India and Australia are in some ways more likely to...have a connection with this country than some people that come perhaps from countries that haven't fully recovered from being behind the iron curtain," UKIP leader Nigel Farage said in 2015, according to The Guardian.

But those on the other side of the argument have hit back against the Brexiters' obsession with Commonwealth trade. Some claim that being in Europe doesn't stop the U.K. from deepening its bonds with the Commonwealth. Steve Peers, a professor of EU law at the University of Essex, wrote in 2015 that the EU had already negotiated or had begun negotiating Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with 90 percent of Commonwealth countries outside the EU, and that U.K. exports to the Commonwealth had been increasing at a rate of over 10 percent per year.

What's more, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi implied during a 2015 state visit that he backed Britain's continued EU membership, saying that the U.K. was India's "entry point" to the EU.

Still, there's an undeniable allure to this diverse group of countries, including among them some of the world's most exciting new economic powers, and focusing on the Commonwealth allows members of the Brexit camp to deny that they are inward-looking "little Englanders". "As the world becomes a smaller place," Carver said, "the international scene is now filling up with new networks and alliances, some involving the old West and some excluding it all together. The Commonwealth is only one of these new, or renewed, systems."

To those who think the EU is a sinking ship the U.K. needs to flee, his words are likely to reverberate.