The proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between India and the UK is likely to miss the Diwali deadline.
Official sources told FE that both sides are yet to wrap up negotiations for the FTA text. Usually, once the text is finalised, it’s subject to legal scrubbing and other internal processes like Cabinet clearances before it’s signed.
Also, the concerns over “open migration policy”, expressed by Britain’s home secretary Suella Braverman on Thursday, cast a doubt on the FTA. The statement suggests that Braverman is unlikely to endorse any further visa concession, a critical area of interest for India under the proposed FTA.
Officially, both sides are still sticking to the October 24 deadline, set in April by the Prime Ministers of both countries to hammer out the FTA. This is despite concerns in certain quarters about the slow pace of negotiations in recent months due to a change of guard in the UK and national mourning following the death of Queen Elizabeth-II last month.
In an interview to The Spectator magazine on Thursday, Braverman said: “I have concerns about having an open borders migration policy with India because I don’t think that’s what people voted for with Brexit.”
Braverman has made the statement even though new British Prime Minister Liz Truss has been keen on firming up the FTA with India to deepen bilateral commerce. It also goes against what the British negotiators have been conveying to their Indian counterparts all along – that there is broad-based support for the FTA, even across party lines.
India has been keen on easier entry for both its students and high-skilled professionals in the UK, as part of an enhanced two-way exchange across different sectors.
Only on October 4, new UK trade minister Kemi Badenoch had backed the FTA and said the Diwali (October 24) deadline was “not arbitrary”. “It was set quite a while ago. But doing a trade deal is not a simple and easy thing. So what we want to do is something that lifts both countries. It may not be everything that the (UK’s) services sector wants.” Badenoch had also indicated that any deal that was agreed could also be expanded at a later date.
However, responding to questions on visa flexibility for students and entrepreneurs under an India-UK FTA, Braverman said: “I do have some reservations. Look at migration in this country — the largest group of people who overstay are Indian migrants … We even reached an agreement with the Indian government last year to encourage and facilitate better cooperation in this regard. It has not necessarily worked very well.”
The secretary was referring to the Migration and Mobility Partnership (MMP) endorsed by her predecessor, Priti Patel, and external affairs minister S Jaishankar in May last year. That agreement, while seeking to encourage talent into the UK, was also aimed at cracking down on those abusing the immigration system.
India has already pipped China as the country that has received the highest number of student visas issued by the UK. About 118,000 Indian students received UK student visas in the the year through June 2022, up 89% from a year before.
Given the vast pool of skilled professionals, India has been grabbing a large share of visas for skilled migrants in the UK.
Both India and the UK launched formal negotiations in January for the FTA, which could ultimately cover more than 90% of tariff lines. They aim to double bilateral trade of both goods and services to about $100 billion by 2030. The India-UK trade is dominated by services, which make up about 70% of the overall annual commerce.