May visits India under a cloud of uncertainty

British PM’s first trade mission will test appetite for post-Brexit Britain.

November 06, 2016 05:45 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:50 pm IST - LONDON:

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (not shown) speak to journalists after their bilateral meeting at 10 Downing Street in London, November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Kirsty Wigglesworth/pool

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (not shown) speak to journalists after their bilateral meeting at 10 Downing Street in London, November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Kirsty Wigglesworth/pool

On Sunday, British Prime Minister >Theresa May is set to head for New Delhi on her first trade mission, and her first bilateral visit outside the European Union.

The visit, which has been pegged as one of May’s first major opportunities to showcase post-Brexit Britain to the world, is taking place under a cloud of uncertainty, with Parliament set to get a say in the process of exiting the EU, and toughening immigration rules governing Indian temporary workers and students.

Accompanied by International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and International Trade Minister Greg Hands, Ms. May is set to arrive in New Delhi on Sunday evening, leading a 40-member business delegation.

She will begin her visit on Monday with a speech to the U.K.-India Tech Summit taking place in the city. She is set to hold bilateral talks with the Prime Minister later that day, following meetings with business and investors.

On Tuesday, she will head for Bengaluru, where a tech summit is also being held. It’s worth noting that the size of delegation is considerably smaller than the over 100 initially expected.

Boosting defence ties “We think India matters more than ever,” said a Downing Street spokesperson ahead of the visit. “We should be able to achieve great things.” Among Britain’s priorities will be furthering the defence and security relationship. The top-level meetings on defence are expected to be followed by those of officials in forthcoming weeks, to help translate “ambition into action,” the spokesperson said. “This is about the long-term relationship.”

Britain is also eager to examine “its path outside the EU.” Though there has been talk of an EU-India FTA, this is nothing Britain can even informally commit to, given its commitments to the EU, which forbids member-states from negotiating bilateral agreements. “We continue to support the EU-India FTA.”

Nevertheless, from the Indian perspective a couple of issues cloud the visit. Firstly, there is the issue of Britain’s stance on Pakistan — which is notably different from that of the U.S., which issued a strong statement condemning cross-border terrorism. Whether Ms. May will follow former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron in issuing a strong statement during her visit remains to be seen though for the moment it looks unlikely. “India and Pakistan are long-standing important friends to the U.K.,” said the spokesperson.

Visa norms Another issue haunting the visit will be visas. Earlier this week, the government announced that a planned tightening of immigration rules — including the raising of salary thresholds for those on an intra-company transfer visa — will come in on November 24, while at the Conservative Party conference earlier this year, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said the government was mulling a two-tier visa system for students, linking things such as the ability to study afterwards to the quality of the university.

“We have made it clear the country wants to be open to the brightest and the best students,” said the spokesperson, adding that Britain gave more student visas to Indians than it did to Chinese and U.S. combined. “Yes we need to balance it against concerns of the British public against immigration.”

While these issues will undoubtedly be factored in during the trip, India will also be eager to stress its willingness to work with a post-Brexit Britain, as it attempts to strengthen bilateral relations with nations outside the EU. “We stand by Britain at this time of crisis. That is what friends do,” said Acting High Commissioner Dinesh Patnaik at an SOAS event in London last month.

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