(Adds minister Ellwood)
By Kylie MacLellan
LONDON, Feb 23 (Reuters) - Britain must treat the Commonwealth with humility if it is to make the most of the opportunity to boost post-Brexit trade, the head of a Commonwealth business organisation said ahead of a trade meeting next month with many former British colonies.
Supporters of Britain’s exit from the European Union have said loosening ties with Brussels will provide an opportunity to reinvigorate relationships with the 52-nation, 2.4 billion-citizen Commonwealth, with its ties of history, culture and language.
New Zealand and Australia were among the first to express a desire for a post-Brexit trade deal with Britain. But some resentment still lingers over how ties were cut when Britain joined the EU’s predecessor, the Common Market, in 1973.
Widely conisdered a betrayal at the time, it upended decades of tradition and a host of tariff agreements and Australia was one of the hardest hit countries.
“The Commonwealth is a natural ally if Britain approaches it with a degree of humility - it could be a great opportunity if managed properly,” said Jonathan Marland, chairman of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (CWEIC) and a former British trade envoy.
“(Britain) will now need to set about rebuilding these relationships for trade,” he told Reuters.
After last year’s vote to leave the EU, the government is trying to balance Britain’s future relationship with the bloc with its desire to forge new trading links around the world.
The CWEIC, which seeks to promote trade and investment, has organised the first ever meeting of Commonwealth trade ministers in London next month, with 30 set to attend alongside business representatives.
Official data shows the Commonwealth accounted for 47.8 billion pounds of British exports in 2014 compared to almost 230 billion pounds for the EU.
Earlier this week, British Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood said Commonwealth trade was due to surpass $1 trillion by 2020, with intra-Commonwealth trade estimated to be 20 percent cheaper due to common legal systems and language.
Marland did not think the idea of a Commonwealth-wide free trade agreement was realistic, but hoped ministers could agree to seek a “Commonwealth Trade and Enterprise Accord” setting out common standards countries could sign up to in order to boost trade.
“We mustn’t kid ourselves - it’s not about the Commonwealth replacing the UK’s relationship with Europe but rather about maximising trade opportunities globally,” he said.
Additional reporting by William James; Editing by Stephen Addison