The Commonwealth no longer represents a continuation of Britain’s colonial past, the UK’s envoy to the association has said.
“That is how it started but if you look at the new members – Togo, Gabon and Rwanda and Mozambique – they actually don’t have traditional colonial connections at all and we welcome that,” Jo Lomas said.
Instead, it expects members to progress towards its charter values, which include sustainable development goals and environmental issues, she said.
“Many countries are active on climate change or inter-Commonwealth trade, for example, and so they all bring something but it’s not necessarily the traditional history or shared links that started off the Commonwealth,” she noted.
“We’re an organisation open to new members that might meet the criteria.”
In 2020, Black Lives Matter protests across the globe, sparked by the murder of African-American George Floyd at the hands of the police in the US, reignited the debate about Malta’s colonial past.
At the time, then culture minister José Herrera slammed calls for the removal of colonial-era monuments such as the statue of Queen Victoria, in Valletta, calling it a “ridiculous idea”.
When asked why she thought anti-colonial sentiment had not taken root more strongly in Malta, Lomas attributed this to the “mutual respect” between the country and Britain’s royal family, whom she described as holding Malta “very dear to their hearts”.
“I don’t know Malta well but my guess is there’s a respect there and, while they may think it’s a less relevant statue at the moment, there’s respect for it,” she said.
“The country has moved on but can still maintain those important links with the royal family. Even as a republic, you can maintain those links.”
Following Malta’s joining the European Union in 2004, why should the country continue to place importance on the Commonwealth?
“It offers both Malta and the UK a completely different diverse network to draw from,” replied Lomas, highlighting India – the world’s most populous democracy – as an important non-European partner. These ties, Lomas argued, could be more difficult for Malta to achieve on its own.
“Malta is a small country with a limited capacity... I don’t think it would [otherwise] have the capacity to develop relationships with such a wide range of countries,” she said.
“When you bring them together, there’s a ready-made group of countries you can discuss things with,” she pointed out, adding that Commonwealth meetings brought “huge added value”.
Nonetheless, it was important the organisation will not just be a “big talking shop” and that it continues to deliver benefits to its members’ citizens, she said when asked about the risk of apathy following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
“We need to guard against apathy and we have to ensure that the Commonwealth remains relevant.”
Rule of law criticisms
Last year, in a damning assessment of the rule of law in Malta, published five years after the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the European Parliament slammed the country for the deterioration of its justice system and its lack of progress prosecuting money laundering and corruption cases.
When asked if the Commonwealth – which promotes the rule of law prominently in its Charter – was concerned by such criticism of one of its members, Lomas declined to comment on Malta specifically.
Speaking more generally on the topic, however, she said there was “a lot to be said” for continuing to apply pressure on member states.
“Where there are egregious human rights violations, there are mechanisms for those to be discussed within the Commonwealth, often in a private manner... those are happening,” she said.
In July, the Australian state of Victoria announced it was pulling out of hosting the 2026 Commonwealth Games citing concerns over cost, with Western Australia premier Roger Cook blasting the event as “ruinously expensive” and other state leaders ruling out stepping in as host.
Does Lomas think the games have a future?
“I think it may well be that we need to look again at how it is funded or which sports are held and how much investment is put into it,” she replied.
The games did allow for “flexibility” when it came to costs, however, she noted.
“It is, to a certain extent, left to each host to decide on a number of the factors, including whether it needs to build new facilities or wants to reduce the number of sports... and I think that is important so hosts can decide what would be most appropriate.”
Recently ascended head of the Commonwealth, King Charles III – whom Lomas described as “deeply committed” to the organisation – was keen the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) delivers a “lasting legacy”, she said.
King Charles was “very focused on how the Commonwealth can drive sustainability and can support the climate change agenda,” said Lomas.
Following Malta’s hosting of the 2015 CHOGM – which, she said, had left the UK with “big boots to fill” when it hosted the summit meeting in 2018 – when might the country expect to host the event again?
This choice was “partly up to the Maltese government”, replied Lomas but added that hosting the event tended to rotate through different global regions.
“It was unusual that London came after Malta and that was because Vanuatu had planned to host it but then couldn’t due to cyclone damage. Then it went to Rwanda and now it’s going to Samoa. It could well be that it goes to the Pacific next but then it comes around again,” she said.
“I’m sure that there will an opportunity in the near future if Malta wants to do that.”