A significant lesson for Britain as it prepares to leave the EU is that it cannot run a strict visa regime and at the same time expect open doors for goods and services.
Theresa May has discovered in India during her first bilateral visit outside Europe that she runs into the same blockages over free trade and movement of labour internationally as she does in her post-Brexit discussions with the European Union.
The lesson, which is highly significant for Britain as it prepares to leave the EU, is that May can’t run a strict visa regime and at the same time expect open doors for goods and services.
She has been told this repeatedly in the EU, and now she has heard it in Asia – from a country with which the UK has strong although complicated ties. A book published recently An Era of Darkness recounts how, as a colonial ruler, Britain crippled the Indian economy and its self-esteem.
May arrived in smog-ridden New Delhi late on Sunday night and began Monday morning with a speech at the opening of an India-UK Tech Summit, followed by meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Later she attended a press conference and gave a brief appearance at an evening reception that was hosted by the British high commissioner.
It rapidly became clear that May was behaving as if she had her old job of home secretary – blocking visas for students and for professionals such as information technology workers.
She is prepared to make some improvements in the visa process, but not to the substance of regulations. Nor is she prepared to do anything that might be interpreted in the UK or the EU as softening her tough line on immigration.
She did not show the charm or personal touch in her rigid Brexit persona on what, she said, was her “first ever trade mission,” and hence failed to win support for her pitch that Britain was “open for trade” but not for immigrants.
Modi was no doubt pleased that May had chosen India for her first visit outside of Europe and talked about the two countries’ “truly special” relationship.
But he would have realised that there was not much competition since the US is embroiled in its presidential election, and May would not have wanted to be seen as following her predecessor David Cameron’s kowtowing by choosing to visit China.
Cameron made three visits to India as the prime minister and charmed people to a degree that May did not even attempt to. He did, however, overplay his hand and achieved little.
After he became the prime minister in 2010, Cameron said that he would double bilateral trade with India within five years. However, despite India’s strong economic growth, the bilateral trade actually fell from $15.7 bn in 2011-2012 to $14 bn in 2015-2016.
He promised to ease student and business visas but was thwarted by May at the Home Office. The number of Indian students going to UK universities nearly dropped to half 39,090 in 2010-11 to 19,750 in 2013-14 as regulations were tightened, including restrictions that prevented graduates from staying on in the UK for two years.
May said that as the home secretary she had eased visa processes for Indians and announced concessions on visas for businessmen including one under a “registered travellers scheme” which would ease passage through the EU immigration queues at British airports for a lucky few.
However, the day before May flew to India, her government announced new restrictions on visas for professionals by raising the minimum salaries required for company transfers from £20,000 a year to £30,000, which would restrict technology staff transfers that could be done by companies such as Infosys and Tata.
She also took a tough line on immigration and said, “The UK will consider further improvements to our visa offer if, at the same time, we can step up the speed and volume of returns of Indians with no right to remain.” Indian officials responded by saying they could take those who had rights to live in India, but not everyone who was on the British list.
May, however, in her opening speech failed to even mention visas for students or education, but Modi made it clear a few minutes later that it was essential.
“Education is vital for our students and will define our engagement in a shared future,” he said in his speech. “We must therefore encourage greater mobility and participation of young people in education and research opportunities.”
Sir Keith Burnett, the vice-chancellor of Sheffield University who is in Delhi put his views in a Reuters article by asking, “How can we say ‘free trade’ and not be willing to teach their children even as they help make our universities economically viable? What has led us to this madness?”
May’s main pitch was to negotiate a free trade deal with India once Britain was out of the EU and to boost trade and investment in the meantime. A “working group” is being established to handle such issues, and investments totalling over £1 bn have been announced, although only a few results have materialised from the previous billions announced during Cameron’s visits and when Modi was in London last November.
The need for free movement of labour as well as trade, however, dominates the debate. Amitabh Kant, a close Modi adviser and chief executive of the government’s Niti Aayog economic think tank, told the conference that while India was opening up its manufacturing and defence sectors to foreign investors, its professionals faced restrictions on working in Britain and in other Western countries.
“There is no such thing as selective free trade,” he said. There was a need for free trade in cross-border movement of manpower as well and the need for UK to allow meritorious people from India to work in the UK.
On other issues, there was more of a meeting of minds. Talks between the two sides ran on for three hours instead of the planned two, and reports said that Modi and May had a 90-minute meeting without the presence of officials. No doubt they recognised each other’s political limitations and agreed on a range of issues such as combating terror, investments (both are major investors in each other’s businesses), energy and successful cooperation on science and technology.
May then travelled to Bengaluru for a British tech investment and to meet more people.
Officials are making the best of what was achieved in her three-day visit. At a media briefing, I asked a senior Indian diplomat if his positive presentation of what had been achieved meant that May had changed from when she was the home secretary and whether enough had been offered by the UK.
“Changes in life are always incremental”, he replied with a smile before quickly moving on to details.
The problem with Britain’s new prime minister, however, is that she doesn’t show much inclination to change, even incrementally, whether in London, Brussels or New Delhi.
Categories: External Affairs