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Last Updated: Friday, 25 November 2005, 04:17 GMT
Commonwealth meets to talk trade
By Mike Wooldridge
BBC World Affairs Correspondent, Malta

"Is the foreign minister of Brunei on board this bus?" There was no immediate response to the protocol man's question as he peered into the bus taking us passengers from the plane to the terminal at Malta Airport.
Flags of some Commonwealth nations
The trade issue is set to divide Commonwealth members

Eventually the foreign minister did indeed step out from among us and accepted the VIP treatment he had been offered.

But it was a delightfully informal moment that somehow seemed to catch the intended spirit of a Commonwealth summit.

Indeed this summit in particular because they have turned more of it into what is called the retreat. This is a long-established feature of these meetings between Commonwealth heads and is intended to encourage frankness and flexibility.

Leaders have confided that they have said things to other leaders at these sessions that they would not have wanted their own officials to hear.

There was a time when it was almost guaranteed that Commonwealth summits would produce a political storm - for years it was over South Africa and apartheid.

At the last summit it was Africa again - Zimbabwe - that provided the fireworks and it ended with President Mugabe's government withdrawing from the Commonwealth.

And although such rows reflect passionately-held and differing views in an international organisation that cherishes both its diversity and its shared values, Commonwealth officials tend to point out that consensus can be more effective when this body is trying to exert its influence in the world.

Trade focus

And this summit will try to reach a consensus on global trade reforms in the hope that this could inject new momentum into the faltering World Trade Organization negotiations which reach their next critical stage at the ministerial meeting in Hong Kong in December.

It will not necessarily be easy. Depending on their size and region and the products that they grow or manufacture, different countries in the Commonwealth have different priorities for trade reform.

But the Commonwealth Secretary General, Don McKinnon, spoke just ahead of the summit of the anger that he detected among most of the countries represented here at the "lack of ambition" there appeared to be now for the Hong Kong meeting.

He said too many people in Geneva and Brussels - the headquarters respectively of the WTO and the EU - were lowering their expectations of the meeting.

Mr McKinnon maintained that the EU in particular had a huge responsibility and he said if it was not prepared to make changes in its Common Agricultural Policy then it meant many people around the world would stay in poverty.

It puts British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the spot here in Malta. But it is also a discomfort that could help him in his own professed determination to prevent the current round of global trade negotiations falter even further in Hong Kong.


There is another, seemingly rather more abstract, issue under discussion in Malta - building more tolerant societies.

It is about political inclusiveness rather than exclusion and alienation, interfaith understanding rather hostility.

But the Commonwealth would say that its very membership profile is its strength in grappling with issues like this - and the plan was to link them with discussion on extremism and terrorism and the conditions in which they can flourish.

Those, at least, were the priority areas for this summit as it got under way. One thing everyone has learnt down the years at Commonwealth meetings is to be braced for the surprise issue.

Profile: The Commonwealth
21 Jul 05 |  Country profiles

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