In Brexit appeal, Britain's May calls on Commonwealth to boost trade

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May will call on the Commonwealth on Monday to boost trade and forge new links, launching a summit of the 53 nations which have become increasingly important to Britain as it leaves the European Union.

May hopes to win the support of the Commonwealth, a network of mostly former British colonies, for future trade deals at a meeting of its heads in London this week, and bolster her argument that the future is bright after Brexit.

But the meeting may be overshadowed by May's decision to join U.S. and French air strikes on Syria on Saturday in retaliation for a suspected poison gas attack, a response Syria and its allies, Russia and Iran, say violates international law and has been criticized by opposition lawmakers in Britain.

"Our Commonwealth family already accounts for one-fifth of global trade," May said in a statement before the meeting.

"And we must continue to work together to build further upon this solid foundation by building on our existing trade links and establishing new ones."

May will unveil new programs to free up trade, improve the skills of young people and boost women's participation in business, including an offer of 7 million pounds ($10 million) in Commonwealth-wide support to boost women-owned businesses in countries where being female is a professional barrier.

In a sign of the increasingly importance of the network of countries, May will also announce funding for a new Commonwealth Standards Network to establish a common language for goods and services to help boost trade. ($1 = 0.7022 pounds)

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

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