Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said that the U.K. government remains committed to working “as quickly as possible” towards a successful conclusion to the ongoing free trade agreement (FTA) talks with India, as the majority of the substantive negotiation conversations were completed at the end of last month.
At a House of Commons session on Thursday on the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, the British Indian leader updated Parliament that he reviewed progress on the FTA during his first meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi since taking charge at 10 Downing Street.
He was questioned by Opposition Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer and his own Conservative Party MPs on the timeline for the completion of the agreement with India.
“I discussed the free trade agreement with India, and both the Prime Minister of India and I committed our teams to working as quickly as possible to see if we can bring a successful conclusion to the negotiations,” said Mr. Sunak.
“Without negotiating all these things in public, I am pleased that the majority of the substantive negotiation conversations were concluded by the end of October. We will now work at pace with the Indian teams to try to resolve the issues and come to a mutually satisfactory conclusion,” he said.
More broadly, he reiterated the U.K. government’s stance since the Deepavali deadline for the FTA was missed, that he would not “sacrifice quality for speed” because it is important to take the time to get trade deals right.
During their first meeting in Bali, the two leaders expressed satisfaction at the state of the wide-ranging India-UK Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and progress on the Roadmap 2030 for Future Relations, according to a press release issued by the Ministry of External Affairs on Wednesday.
The two leaders appreciated the importance of working together in bilateral and multilateral forums including G20 and the Commonwealth. Their discussions touched upon important sectors of collaboration such as trade, mobility, defence and security, the release said.
Mr. Sunak was also questioned about his other discussions with Mr. Modi and whether he raised issues such as India’s stance over the Russia-Ukraine conflict and also the U.K. being an exception within Europe to not be offered the e-visa facility – something he confirmed was discussed and will remain on the government’s agenda.
On India’s “non-aligned” position on the Ukraine conflict, he claimed “enormous comfort” from the fact that the G20 communique “contained strong language of condemnation about Russia’s aggression”.
“Our relationship and partnership with India are much broader than just a trading relationship. I was pleased to discuss increasing our security cooperation with India,” said Mr. Sunak.
“We also announced the mobility scheme to enable young people from India to come here and young Brits to go there, which is a sign of what is possible.
Such exchanges are positive both for our countries and for the young people who benefit,” he said, with reference to the new U.K.-India Young Professionals Scheme launched at the summit earlier this week involving 3,000 new reciprocal visa offers annually for under-30s — dubbed as "good for both Indian students and British students who want to go back and forth".
On the new scheme, Labour’s Indian-origin MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi questioned the move against the backdrop of “dog whistle” anti-immigrant rhetoric from Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s “incendiary remarks against international students that so incensed people in India”.
The Labour Leader also attacked Ms. Braverman for putting the FTA deal with India in doubt after indicating that she would not support it, with reference to her controversial remarks on Indians being the largest group of visa overstayers.
“The Home Secretary is rightly focused — there is nothing ‘dog whistle’ about it — on clamping down on illegal migration, which the British people rightly expect and demand, and it is something that she and this government will deliver,” Mr. Sunak said in defence of his Cabinet minister.