The UK’s international trade secretary said “everything is on the table to discuss”, including immigration, as she launches trade negotiations with India, the biggest country with which the UK has sought to sign a post-Brexit free trade deal.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan said her team has “a broad mandate to crack on from cabinet”, including to negotiate over India’s demands for easier visa access for students and skilled workers. She said the UK wants to finalise a deal by early 2023, ahead of both Indian and British general elections the following year.
Trevelyan will meet Piyush Goyal, India’s commerce minister, to launch formal trade negotiations with India on Thursday. Their teams will hold a first round of talks this month.
The UK’s main demands include reductions in Indian tariffs on British whisky, cars and wind turbine parts, while India has sought concessions on visa and immigration quotas and market access for agricultural products, such as basmati rice.
However, creating more immigration openings for high-skilled Indian workers and students in the UK risks a backlash from many Brexit-supporting Conservative party voters and MPs, who want to curb immigration flows while expanding economic ties outside the EU.
“Everything is on the table to discuss. Completely,” Trevelyan said in an interview with the Financial Times. “At the end of the day, I will take back to cabinet a deal which I think is great for UK businesses and provides opportunities for them to see trade and investment growth going forward.”
Boris Johnson’s government has made securing new bilateral deals a central part of its post-Brexit trade policy. So far it has completed agreements with Australia and Japan and rolled over EU deals with more than 60 other countries. Trevelyan hopes to join the transpacific Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, by the end of this year and to negotiate more deals such as with the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The value of UK-India trade, worth £18.5bn in 2020, has stagnated over the past decade. The UK wants flows to more than double to £50bn by 2030.
India, with 1.4bn people, is expected to surpass China as the world’s largest country by population in coming years, with its expanding middle class creating enticing opportunities for foreign businesses. But securing a deal with New Delhi within a year will be tough and free trade deals have provoked fierce domestic resistance in the country.
In 2019 India decided not to join the pan-Asian RCEP trade agreement over concerns that its markets would be flooded with Chinese goods. Narendra Modi government’s talks with the US and EU have made little progress though it is hoping to finalise others with the UAE and Australia in the coming months.
A Downing Street briefing document from last year acknowledged that a deal with India would be “challenging”, particularly when it comes to immigration and visa issues. At least 1.5m people of Indian origin live in the UK and the country is among the largest sources of skilled immigration to Britain 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”. He accused the UK of being “held to ransom” by India over visas.
Trevelyan argued that the Home Office’s points-based immigration system would help address Indian concerns over immigration by creating more opportunities for skilled workers. She added that her team is willing to discuss demands for additional access: “In terms of discussions on anything further, negotiations will kick off and we’ll see how they progress.”
She said the talks would provide a new opportunity “to release some of these historic limitations” on foreign investment.