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Charity advocating for U.S. to join the Commonwealth

President Donald Trump during for a healthcare discussion with House committee chairs, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, in Washington, March 10, 2017. The Royal Commonwealth Society has reached out to U.S. President Donald Trump, whose advisers are reportedly receptive to the idea of joining the Commonwealth.

AL DRAGO/NYT

The United States hasn't been part of the British empire for more than 200 years, but there's now a move afoot to invite the U.S. to join the club of ex-colonies: the Commonwealth.

The Royal Commonwealth Society, an independent charity that works within Commonwealth countries, plans to open a branch in the United States as part of a new effort to encourage the country to join the 52-member organization. Not all Commonwealth members have ties to Britain or the Queen and the idea is to broaden the membership to include countries such as the United States and others as associate members. The RCS has already reached out to U.S. President Donald Trump, whose advisers are reportedly receptive to the idea.

"We've got a number of people [in the United States] who have come to us and said they were interested," said Tim Hewish, director of policy and research at the RCS. "It's just a case of seeing whether it works or not and obviously, on our side, we hope that it does," he added.

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The RCS has been trying to broaden the scope of the Commonwealth for a while. It has opened a "Nordic-Baltic Hub" based in Helsinki to reach out to Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden. And it has pushed to include Ireland within the Commonwealth. "We've argued for a number of countries to join the Commonwealth," Mr. Hewish said.

He and others point to several international groups that have associate membership status or observers. The Arctic Council, for example, consists of the eight member countries that have territory within the Arctic Circle, such as Canada, as well as 12 observers including China, Singapore and South Korea.

There's nothing to prevent the United States from joining the Commonwealth. Member states decide who can join and the last two countries to become members – Mozambique and Rwanda – have no historic connections to Britain's colonial past or any constitutional link to Britain. And even though the Queen is the head of the Commonwealth, many member countries are republics.

Brexit and the election of Mr. Trump have sparked renewed interest in the Commonwealth, particularly as a potential trading area. Several British cabinet ministers, including Trade Minister Liam Fox, have said that as Britain pulls out of the European Union it should look to Commonwealth countries for new trade relationships. Mr. Trump is also seen as ardently pro-British, frequently citing his mother's Scottish ancestry and welcoming Britain's invitation for a state visit hosted by the Queen.

Commonwealth countries are trying to seize the moment in order to press for more trade connections.

Last week, trade ministers from 37 members, including Canada, met for the first time in a two-day session in London to discuss opportunities and how to break down trade barriers among member states. Because of Brexit, "this conference, which was planned in any event, has simply become even more poignant, even more important, and has probably attracted much more international interest than perhaps it would otherwise have done," Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland said in an interview.

Commonwealth officials have stressed that the RCS and the Commonwealth are separate organizations and that it would be up to member states to decide whether the United States joined. Ms. Scotland said that adding the country has not come up as an issue inside the organization so far and that any new member, or the addition of associate members, would require the support of all 52 states.

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That hasn't stopped the RCS from pressing its case.

The charity's director, Michael Lake, wrote Mr. Trump a letter in December raising the idea. The letter was delivered to the President's team by an aide to Nigel Farage, the former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party who has a close relationship with Mr. Trump. Mr. Farage has met with Mr. Trump and his advisers a couple of times and he reportedly raised the issue of membership with Stephen Bannon, Mr. Trump's chief strategist. Mr. Bannon welcomed the idea, said Arron Banks, a major Ukip donor who accompanied Mr. Farage on the visits.

"[Team Trump] were very positive," Mr. Banks told the Times newspaper. "Trump is going to be the most pro-British President ever. Since America was part of the [British Empire] nothing should stop them from becoming an associate member of the Commonwealth."

The Commonwealth "has been very introspective. It needs to be more extroverted," Mr. Lake told reporters. "In that sense we have adopted a policy of getting branches of the Commonwealth in non-Commonwealth countries."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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