Fears of watered-down India-UK free trade pact amid visa row
London: There are growing fears here that the proposed India-UK free trade agreement (FTA), currently in its final stages of negotiation towards a Diwali deadline, is likely to be watered down amid controversial remarks by UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman on visas.
The Indian-origin Cabinet minister seems to be poised for a direct clash with British Prime Minister Liz Truss, who is keen to stick to the looming October 24 timeline for the FTA and is well aware that the ease of movement of students and professionals is crucial to India’s objectives as part of a new trade deal.
However, Braverman expressed “reservations” over what she feared would be an “open borders” migration policy with India under an FTA, casting doubt over the nature of the final agreement.
“It now appears likely that the prospective UK-India FTA under the Liz Truss government will not be as substantive nor as comprehensive as envisaged by the previous Boris Johnson government, as negotiations on key issues of mobility/migration and tariffs can be expected to continue towards a non-time bound second-phase of the agreement,” said Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank.
The strategic expert believes the Diwali timeline may still be met symbolically to enable both governments to claim a political victory of sorts, even though its economic impact may be “underwhelming” for both sides.
“For the UK, this would be its first trade deal with an Asian economic giant; and for India it would be its first major deal with a European/western country, thereby providing leverage over a prospective India-EU FTA. But, if this truncated FTA is to serve as a boost to UK-India political ties, it needs to be followed quickly by an early win and a legacy development on bilateral defence cooperation, which has been underperforming for many years,” he said.
“But, the window for this is fast closing, with both governments focused on differing foreign policy priorities amidst preparations for their next general elections,” he cautioned.
UK Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch also seemed to raise the prospect of a less than comprehensive approach during a panel discussion earlier this week, when she declared that both sides could agree “even more later”.
“We talk about free trade agreement, but they are not universal, unilateral free trade. I think freer trade is probably a more accurate way of describing what we are doing on all these bilateral deals,” she said.
Doubts had been raised over the Diwali timeline announced by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson during his visit to India in April following political turmoil in the UK, which resulted in a new government led by Liz Truss early last month.
“I would much rather have a more comprehensive deal that takes slightly longer to complete. It’s good to have a deadline, good to have that target to try and finish by Diwali… my target is the end of this year,” said Lord Karan Bilimoria, who helped set up a joint UK India Industry Taskforce between the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) to push through industry priorities within an FTA.
Amid Braverman’s remarks casting doubt over what an FTA would include in terms of visas for India, the UK’s Department for International Trade (DIT) has insisted that it would not sacrifice quality for speed.
“A trade deal between the UK and India is a huge opportunity to deepen our already strong trading relationship worth GBP 24.3 billion a year, which will benefit businesses and sectors right across both our countries. We remain clear that we won’t sacrifice quality for speed and will only sign when we have a deal that meets the UK’s interests,” a UK government spokesperson said.
The High Commission of India in London countered Braverman’s contention that a Migration and Mobility Partnership (MMP) clinched by her predecessor, Priti Patel, had not worked well as she pointed to Indians as the largest group of visa overstayers.
“As part of our wider discussions under Migration and Mobility, the government of India is committed to work with the government of UK to facilitate the return of Indian citizens who have overstayed their visa period here in the UK,” the Indian High Commission said, pointing to work pending on the UK Home Office side on further action under the MMP.
The latest set of UK Home Office statistics from 2020 show that the 20,706 Indian visa overstayers represent around 4.4 per cent of the total, much lower compared to other nationalities such as China, Pakistan and Nigeria between 7 to 9 per cent.
The Opposition Labour Party’s diaspora group attacked Braverman’s comments as a failure to acknowledge the value that the nearly 1.6 million strong Indian diaspora adds to Britain.
“She overlooks how Indians and others from across the world fill the skills shortages here particularly in our NHS [National Health Service], something which right wing politicians are intent on destroying. Braverman clearly doesn’t understand how well-integrated the community is,” said the Labour Convention of Indian Organisations (LCIO).
The Indian National Student Association (INSA) UK pointed to the contributions made by Indian students to the UK economy and accused the UK government of making damaging statements instead of addressing real crises, such as an acute student housing shortage.
“Today, Indian students directly contribute not only their talent to UK universities, but also keep them viable commercially. Rather than making such damaging statements, we hope the government addresses real issues such as the shortage of student housing,” INSA UK said.