Boris Johnson wants a trade deal with India. But will the UK accept looser immigration rules?
India-UK Free Trade Agreement Negotiations started almost two weeks ago. The Narendra Modi government has made any deal conditional on relaxing rules and lowering fees for Indian students and professionals. The UK government should see this as an opportunity to address its unsustainable labor shortages and ultimately do some good for ‘global Britain’.
A trade deal with India is seen as the ultimate post-Brexit prize for the UK government and Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan has described these free trade talks as a “golden opportunity”. She traveled to New Delhi last week to persuade the Indian government to remove barriers British-made cars, green technology and Scotch whisky. Indian Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal has called for the export of textiles and agricultural products to be facilitated in addition to concessions on labor mobility in exchange.
New Delhi’s red line on immigration could be the UK’s golden ticket to solving its current labor shortage. These trade talks come as the UK faces significant shortages of employees in various key industries, from hospitality to road transport. Companies that once relied on free movement within EU countries are now struggling to find workers. Experts warn that these labor shortages will only increase in the coming years.
A trade deal between the UK and India could remedy this crisis and offer thousands of work visas to Indian nationals. One of the suggested outcomes is a special “points-based” quota system, similar to the one agree with Australians, which would require Indian migrants to have a set of skills, education and English proficiency to come to live and work in the UK for up to three years. This type of agreement would be cause for celebration for many Britons who recognize the benefits of immigration.
It is politically out of the question for a government that has pursued Brexit to look across the Channel to solve its labor shortages, but it is at least open to the prospect of facilitating the immigration of skilled Indian workers. Trevelyan said, “everything is on the table to discuss” and the The Minister of Foreign Affairs is predisposed to relax immigration rules for Indian citizens. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, the son-in-law of Indian billionaire businessman NR Narayana Murthy, typically keeps his cards close to his chest on this issue.
Home Secretary Priti ‘pulls the drawbridge’ Patel is against the decision to grant more visas. Referring to India, a member of the ruling Conservative party, Edward Leigh, complained in the House of Commons that voters did not want “to replace immigration from Europe with more immigration from from the rest of the world”. The UK government is beholden to a powerful anti-immigration base that will protest against any relaxation of visa rules for Indians.
Work and tourist visas can currently cost Indians Rs 1.4 lakh (£1,400). But now New Delhi is laying down the law with the UK. If they want to strike a deal with their biggest post-Brexit trading partner, they must lower visa fees for students and allow them to extend their stay in Britain after graduation. The loss to the UK Home Office in reduced visa fees would be a pittance compared to the 2,800 crore rupees (£28 billion) a year that the bilateral trade agreement is expected to pay off by 2035.
Britain has so far struggled to secure new trade deals with fast-growing economies since leaving the EU. Their hopes for a US trade deal faltered with the election of Joe Biden, and China’s growing authoritarianism makes him an unsavory bedfellow. The UK cabinet is now putting all its eggs in one basket on the back of a trade deal with the country set to become the world’s third-largest economy by 2050 – and that’s generally not a favorable opening in the trade negotiations.
Narendra Modi invited Boris Johnson to attend last year’s Republic Day parade but no such offer arrived at Number 10 Downing Street for next week’s celebration. The coronavirus has constantly interrupted the prime minister’s plans to visit New Delhi. After trying to press ahead with a trip as India battled its second wave in April 2021, the opposition Labor Party accused him of practicing double standards keeping the country he personally intended to visit off his government’s travel ‘red list’.
As the UK seeks to lift all lockdown restrictions as the peak of the omicron wave passes, Boris Johnson will be waiting on the phone with a red pen, ready to cancel his plans and jump on the first jet to New Delhi . An official trip to India would be a much-desired distraction from his political woes. He looks increasingly vulnerable as more reports emerge on “party on an industrial scale” in Downing Street during times of Covid-19 lockdown and restrictions.
The announced deadline for the 2022 trade deal seems fanciful. The problem is that New Delhi is in no hurry and will negotiate hard on the issue of immigration. The beleaguered British Prime Minister does not have the political inclination or courage to confront anti-immigration elements within his own party, even though doing so could help solve the UK jobs crisis. We shouldn’t expect a full-scale trade deal between the UK and India anytime soon.
Tom Wilkinson is a PhD candidate in the Department of International History at the London School of Economics, specializing in colonial and postcolonial Indian history. He tweets @TomWilk0.