Despite a setback to trade talks over comments by the British Home Secretary last week, officials in both the U.K. and India said they hope to conclude the India-U.K. Free Trade Agreement fairly soon, if not ahead of its “Deepavali deadline” of end-October. Officials confirmed to The Hindu that a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being planned for early November, when a framework FTA would be signed between the PM and British Prime Minister Liz Truss on broad areas of agreement, while other unresolved issues would be dealt with later.
When asked on Wednesday about whether the British government still hoped to conclude the deal by Deepavali (October 24), Ms. Truss’ spokesperson said “Yes, we are working on this high ambition free trade deal that would put the U.K. at the front of the queue to supply India’s growing middle class,” according to the Reuters news agency.
In written responses to The Hindu, the U.K. Department for International Trade spokesperson said the FTA was a “high-ambition* agreement and they wouldn’t comment on “live negotiations”. “We remain clear that we won’t sacrifice quality for speed, and will only sign when we have a deal that meets both countries’ interests,” the spokesperson added.
Talks between Indian and U.K. trade officials faced a setback after critical comments made by the British Home Secretary Suella Braverman last week over illegal Indian migrants, which India had countered. Meanwhile, pending issues including over mobility, data localisation regulations, reducing tariffs on Scotch whisky as well as access for legal services remain unresolved, despite a push from the top on both sides to conclude the deal which was outlooked at the Modi-Johnson summit in April this year, and due by Deepavali.
“There are several sticking points on both sides. From U.K. side, they are pushing India to allow financial and legal services for U.K. firms while from India, it’s pushing for favourable immigration and visa regime,” a person familiar with the developments told The Hindu.
The official added that the remarks and the stand taken by the new Home Secretary of the U.K. Suella Braverman who had expressed “reservations” about an agreement that would increase Indian migration and mobility, have only aggravated the contentious issue of mobility and immigration and liberal visa regime for the Indian side, and that India remained resolute that the mobility issues are an important part of the FTA.
On Wednesday, the U.K.-based Times newspaper had even said the FTA talks were on the “verge of collapse” quoting Indian government officials who wanted PM Truss to distance herself publicly from the remarks made Ms. Braverman.
In addition, a spat has broken out about India’s decision not to restore e-visas for U.K. citizens, possibly in response to long U.K. delays over visas, which has led to complaints and cancellations by thousands of British travellers and businessmen, diplomats said.
The sources said however, that despite the differences, both sides have decided to sign a “broader FTA” at the earliest while continuing to negotiate on the sticking points, and even indicated that Mr. Modi could be in the UK as early as November 7-8.
According to other government sources, PM Modi has a busy travel schedule after that, given the Bali G-20 summit in mid-November, as well as a possible visit to Moscow for the annual summit with Mr. Putin, travel to the U.S. to chair a UN Security Council meeting during India’s month of Presidency in December as well as a possible visit to Washington. In addition, Assembly elections in December in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are also likely to take up much of Mr. Modi’s schedule.
During the visit to London, Mr. Modi is also expected to meet with British King Charles III, and personally condole the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth. Earlier this year, a visit by the then Prince Charles had been proposed to India and Pakistan for November, as they celebrate 75 years of independence, but had been put off due to scheduling issues