The UK House of Lords passed a motion calling for stronger future collaboration with India, noting the importance of the relationship between the two nations. Indeed, India and the UK are entwined by historic and cultural links stretching back decades. The 1.6m Indian diaspora living in the UK make up 3.1percent of the population of England and Wales and are the second biggest ethnic group there, after those who identify as white British. The ties between the nations have been called a ‘living bridge’ and a ‘special bind’.
It is upon this foundation that in May 2021, India and the UK published their ‘2030 roadmap for India-UK future relations’. The bilateral document sets out the details of how the nations aim to move towards ‘revitalised and dynamic connections between our people’, through a policy of trade, investment and technological collaboration along with enhanced defence and security cooperation and partnerships in climate, clean energy and health initiatives. The roadmap identifies more than 100 lines of activity where the nations can link and create partnerships.
In April last year, Boris Johnson, then UK Prime Minister, resolved to advance this strategic and economic partnership. He committed to an annual exchange of visits at the Prime Ministerial level. This year we can expect to see a summit between the latest British PM, Rishi Sunak (the son of Indian immigrants) and PM Modi. The men met initially at last year’s G20 summit where they “agreed on the enduring importance of the UK-India relationship” and it will not be a surprise if the UK extends the invitation of a full state visit to PM Modi in 2023.
One of the main factors which will cement the future relationship between the nations will be the establishment of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). This will need to be finalised to reach the ambitious target of more than doubling UK-India trade by 2030. FTA negotiations were formally launched in January 2022. A target to conclude the majority of the talks was set for the end of October 2022, but political turmoil in the UK delayed this deadline.
One of the key factors in the 2030 roadmap which will influence any subsequent FTA is migration and mobility. The free flow of citizens between the two nations has been a sticking point in the past. PM Modi would like his citizens to have frictionless access to the UK. In Britain, however, which saw record numbers of foreign citizens issued visas last year, immigration has long been a difficult political issue and was one of the driving factors behind the country’s decision to leave the European Union in 2016.
As a businessman who migrated to the UK from Gujarat many years ago and now helps other Indian nationals and businesses secure work visas to the UK, I know that demand for British work visas from India remains high. The UK’s post-Brexit immigration policy has favoured skilled Indian workers, who made up the majority nationality of those issued Skilled worker visas last year. But while there are visa routes into the UK for Indian investors, entrepreneurs and skilled workers, the British immigration system can be confusing, hostile and restrictive. This will need to be addressed in order to meet the roadmap commitment to ‘implement a comprehensive Migration and Mobility Partnership covering movement of students and professionals as well as irregular migration keeping in view the UK’s new skills-based immigration policy’. As a move towards this, the UK launched a young professional’s scheme to allow 3,000 young Indian professionals to come to the UK each year. The scheme does not offer permanent settlement to those who take advantage of it, however.
Immigration will remain one of the key issues to be agreed when PM Sunak and PM Modi resume FTA talks this year. And although there is continued commitment for closer ties – reiterated in December last year, when the UK government said that the roadmap continued to “set a positive trajectory for UK-India relations” – it would be wrong to assume that PM Sunak, because of his heritage, will prove a more agreeable negotiation partner. Any agreements he signs will be based on the consideration of national interest and the ruling UK Conservative Party has already had its fingers burned after signing a deal with Australia that appeared to put the UK at a disadvantage. British negotiators will be wary of giving away too much, fearing political backlash, particularly with a general election scheduled in 2024, in which the position of the Conservatives looks increasingly precarious.
That said, the desire to reach an agreement remains a political goal for each side and, as India celebrates Republic Day, it is fitting that the nation approaches the negotiating table from a position of strength. Whatever the outcome, it will conduct relationships with its former colonial ruler as an equal partner.