Britain’s International Trade Secretary said “everything is on the table for discussion” including immigration as she launches trade talks with India, the largest country the UK has sought with to sign a post-Brexit free trade agreement.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan said her team had “a broad mandate to give to the cabinet,” including negotiating India’s demands for easier visa access for students and skilled workers. She said the UK wanted to finalize a deal by early 2023, ahead of the Indian and UK general elections the following year.
Trevelyan will meet Piyush Goyal, Indian Minister of Commerce, to launch formal trade talks with India on Thursday. Their teams will hold a first round of talks this month.
Major UK demands include cuts in Indian tariffs on British whiskey, cars and wind turbine parts, while India has asked for concessions on visa and immigration quotas and access to the market for agricultural products, such as basmati rice.
However, creating more immigration openings for highly skilled Indian workers and students in the UK risks causing a backlash from many Brexit-friendly Conservative voters and MPs who want to curb immigration flows all the while. by developing economic ties outside the EU.
“Everything is on the table for discussion. Completely, ”Trevelyan said in an interview with the Financial Times. “Ultimately, I will present to Cabinet a deal which I believe is excellent for UK businesses and offers them opportunities to see trade and investment growth continue.”
Boris Johnson’s government has made the signing of new bilateral deals a central part of its post-Brexit trade policy. So far, it has concluded agreements with Australia and Japan and has renewed the EU’s agreements with more than 60 other countries. Trevelyan hopes to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, by the end of this year and negotiate more agreements like with the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The value of UK-India trade, worth £ 18.5 billion in 2020, has stagnated over the past decade. The UK wants flows to more than double to £ 50 billion by 2030.
India, with 1.4 billion people, is expected to overtake China as the world’s largest country in terms of population in the coming years, as its expanding middle class creates attractive opportunities for foreign businesses. But reaching a deal with New Delhi within a year will be difficult, and the free trade agreements have sparked fierce national resistance in the country.
In 2019, India decided not to join the Pan-Asian RCEP trade deal, fearing its markets could be inundated with Chinese products. Narendra Modi’s government talks with the US and the EU have made little progress, although he hopes to finalize others with the UAE and Australia in the coming months.
A Downing Street briefing paper from last year acknowledged that a deal with India would be “difficult”, particularly on immigration and visa issues. At least 1.5 million people of Indian descent live in the UK and the country is one of Britain’s largest sources of skilled immigration and student visa applicants.
Referring to India, Tory MP Edward Leigh complained in parliament this month that Brexit voters do not want to “replace immigration from Europe with more immigration from the rest of the world. world “. He accused the UK of being “held hostage” by India for visas.
Trevelyan argued that the Home Office’s points-based immigration system would help address Indian concerns about immigration by creating more opportunities for skilled workers. She added that her team was open to discussing the additional access requests: “In terms of discussing anything else, the negotiations will start and we’ll see how they progress. “
Trevelyan also hailed the Indian government’s decision to drop a controversial retrospective tax law last year that had sparked disputes with UK companies including Cairn Energy and Vodafone.
She said the talks would provide a new opportunity “to lift some of these historic limitations” on foreign investment.