Rishi Sunak ‘keen’ to visit India, but many difficult issues remain in FTA: U.K. envoy

The British PM’s proposed visit to India in October and November has been delayed; FTA talks in 14th round; External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to raise concerns about Khalistan threats during London visit

November 11, 2023 08:56 pm | Updated November 12, 2023 07:45 am IST - NEW DELHI

British High Commissioner to India Alex Ellis. File

British High Commissioner to India Alex Ellis. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Negotiations for a India-United Kingdom Free Trade Agreement (FTA) are the main focus of ties between the two countries at present, with several “hard bits” that could need intervention at a “senior level”, the British High Commissioner to India Alex Ellis said on November 11, speaking ahead of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s visit to London this week. He added that British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is “keen” to visit India, but that the focus on the FTA talks came first.

“We’re a lot closer than we were a year ago. We’re batting deep as they would say in the Cricket World Cup, and now we’re on to the big and tricky issues, and they are substantially difficult,” Mr. Ellis said, when asked about a timeline for the FTA to be completed.

When asked whether Mr. Sunak’s visit was contingent on the FTA being ready to sign, Mr. Ellis told The Hindu in an exclusive interview that the “Prime Minister [Sunak] is keen to come [to India]. But first of all, we’ve got to focus on the FTA,” pointing to an “intense period of negotiations” that are now ongoing, with officials meeting regularly to work through issues.

FTA talks drag on

Mr. Sunak’s proposed bilateral visit to India in October-November is understood to have been put off due to delays in the FTA talks. The talks, that began after Brexit in January 2022, are now in their 14th round, with about five of the 26 chapters still unresolved, sources said.

In a telephone conversation last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mr. Sunak also discussed the progress in the FTA talks.

Mr. Jaishankar, who left for the U.K. on Saturday for a four-day visit that officials said was “long overdue”, is expected to be joined by U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly to celebrate the Deepavali festival at the Indian High Commission. The External Affairs Minister will hold several high-level meetings in London to discuss strategic ties, as well as India’s concerns over the issue of Khalistani extremism in the U.K. 

Top priority

Diplomatic sources have said that the U.K. FTA is India’s top priority at present. Deals with Australia for the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), with the European Union and with European Free Trade Association (EFTA) talks with Switzerland, Norway, Finland and Liechtenstein, as well as with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are next in line. With election season in India in 2024 and the U.K. headed to polls by January 2025, Mr. Sunak and Mr. Modi are hopeful that the FTA will be completed by early 2024, but have not set any deadline yet.

Also Read | Confident of striking a modern, forward-looking free trade agreement: British PM Rishi Sunak on trade ties with India

“I think it’s clear both Prime Ministers are signalling to their systems that they want to find a way to get a deal. But there’s no hiding the difficulties,” Mr. Ellis said. The problems include the Rules of Origin, given that the U.K. has an integrated supply chain with the European Union, while India wants to favour goods that include a higher value addition from the U.K. itself. In addition, tariffs over goods like Scotch whiskey and automobiles, including electric vehicles, from the U.K., and leather and textiles from India are among the sticking points. Meanwhile, India has yet to commit to giving legal and financial U.K. firms access to the Indian market.

“So what we want to do now is try and boil down the issues to the few big ones which need resolution at a senior level, to cut away quite a lot of the second order issues…and then we can actually focus on the really hard bits at the end,” Mr. Ellis added, clarifying that mobility, or more visas for Indians, are not included in the agreement.

Tackling ‘illegal’ migration

When asked about the U.K. decision to put India on a list of “safe states”, effectively disallowing any Indians that enter the U.K. illegally on “small boats” across the English Channel from applying for asylum, Mr. Ellis said that the move was an “autonomous judgement”.  The move is a part of the Sunak government’s tightening of regulations for non-legal immigrants, and comes as Indians became the second biggest migrant group crossing the Channel, behind Afghans, in 2022. 

“To sustain legal migration we have to tackle illegal migration. And at different points in the first quarter of this year, Indians moved up to number two in terms of nationals coming in small boats across the Channel, crossing the English Channel. So you need to tackle that as well,” Mr. Ellis said, adding that Indians are the largest recipients of work visas to the U.K. Students, visitors and skilled professionals received a third of the total number of visas issued, he added.

Combating Khalistani extremism

Mr. Jaishankar, whose visit comes eight months after a major India-U.K. spat over protests by Khalistani extremists at the High Commission in London, is also expected to raise India’s concerns on the issue, including over the most recent video by the Sikhs for Justice group, banned by India, that threatened any passengers taking Air India flights on November 19.

“We’re always keeping under review the list [of extremist groups] and looking at the behaviour of different kinds of groups. I feel that [India and the U.K.] have a better understanding and a more greater confidence on the two sides of how to deal with extremism in different forms in the U.K.,” Mr. Ellis said in the interview. However, he did not confirm whether the U.K. would ban the SFJ as a terror group.

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