UK Commonwealth initiative underwhelms NZ govt

The British government is about to launch a new Commonwealth initiative – even if New Zealand's Minister of Foreign Affairs is playing it down.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague is to deliver a speech in Canada today (NZ time) which will, it has been reported in London newspapers, help rebuild Commonwealth ties and boost the clout of the Commonwealth against the eurozone.

The announcement has caused a bit of head scratching in the New Zealand capital.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully’s office expressed perplexity when first asked about the issue by NBR ONLINE at 8.30am yesterday and only managed a  short response shortly before 3.30pm.

"We already co-locate with the UK in Kabul and have had positive discussions about co-location elsewhere,” Mr McCully’s press secretary Billie Moore emailed mid-afternoon.

More seasoned observers of New Zealand’s trade and diplomatic arena have noted the idea of some sort of co-location with other Commonwealth nations has been discussed for more than 20 years and always comes up when governments are looking for ways to cut spending on their expensive foreign posts.

Mr Hague is promoting the initiative heavily in Britain but this seems at least partly driven by domestic political concerns. The initiative was floated over the weekend in the Daily Mail – a Tory, but highly Eurosceptic, newspaper – and it is very much being slanted as a way for the UK government to get one over the European Union.

More substantively, the initiative is part of a shift in British foreign policy announced after David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal coalition government took over in 2010.

Since the Suez Crisis in 1956 UK foreign policy has emphasised British interests as being at the centre of three concentric circles: Europe, the United States and the Commonwealth/former Empire.

The final circle of the three has been very much the poor relation since Britain joined what was then called the European Economic Community in 1973.

In the years of Tony Blair’s Labour government, Commonwealth affairs were very much eclipsed by the trans-Atlantic alliance, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and by the persistent domestic rows over European policy.

Mr Hague – who led the Conservative Party between 1997 and 2001 and is very much of its Eurosceptic faction – is positioning tomorrow’s announcement as a blow for the “old Commonwealth” of Canada, Australia and New Zealand against the eurozone.

The move “will seek to head off the creeping influence of European Union diplomats”, Conservative Party blog Tory Diary reported.

The Daily Mail reported the move will “launch a worldwide network of British Commonwealth embassies to rival the emergence of the EU as a foreign superpower” and that “he hopes Australia and New Zealand will join the initiative whereby the four countries will pool their resources to extend their combined influence on world affairs”.

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