Modi, Johnson Agree on FTA Talks, Visa Relaxations in Exchange of India Taking Back Illegal Migrants

The India and UK PMs met virtually on Tuesday after two meetings were cancelled this year due to COVID-19.

New Delhi: After the last two scheduled meetings were cancelled, Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally held a summit with his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, virtually on Tuesday, May 4.

The two key takeaways were a commitment to launch negotiations for a bilateral trade agreement and a relaxation in UK visas in return for India agreeing to take back nationals who had entered the British isles illegally.

Johnson was supposed to visit India as the Republic Day chief guest this January. He cancelled that trip due to the rising graph of COVID-19 cases in the UK. The next attempt was in April, but that had to be abandoned when a second wave of the pandemic hit India.

The two heads of government finally got together on Tuesday for the virtual summit, which had a significant economic focus.

According to the joint statement, both leaders welcomed the launch of “Enhanced Trade Partnership,” aiming to double trade volume by 2030. As per the latest Indian government figures, trade stood at $15.4 billion.

“Though steadily rising in the recent years, the figures do not reflect the true potential for trade between the world’s 5th and 6th largest economies. Moreover, Brexit has provided tremendous new opportunities for both countries,” said MEA’s joint secretary (Europe), Sandeep Chakraborty, in a post-summit media briefing.

They also agreed to start talks this year to eventually sign a free trade deal, even as both sides announced over $1 billion in new investment.

The UK side noted that Indian firms would invest in projects worth 533 million pounds, which will create 6,000 new jobs. One of the critical deals was a £240 million investment by vaccine manufacturer Serum Institute of India in the UK.

It also stated that the new trade partnership would help UK businesses access industries in India “including food and drink, life sciences and the service sector”. According to 10 Downing Street, India will also lower non-tariff barriers on fruits (like British apples, pears and quince) and medical devices.

In return, Chakravorty stated that the UK had agreed to “open up the fisheries sector for more Indian players, facilitate more opportunities for nurses, recognise Indian seafarers certificates and also enter into a joint dialogue on the Social Security Agreement”. India has also agreed to UK’s request on mutual recognition of masters degrees and “work towards reciprocal opening of legal services”.

“These actions are likely to generate 20-25,000 new direct and indirect jobs in India,” he added.

While the UK had been keen to get a trade deal, India had wanted relaxation in visa rules for students and professionals.

External Affairs Minister, who is currently in London, signed a Migration and Mobility Partnership Agreement with UK home secretary Priti Patel.

Under this agreement, 3,000 Indian professionals can avail themselves of employment opportunities in the UK for two years without being subject to a labour market test. The UK has similar arraignments with Australia, Canada, Japan and South Korea.

According to UK Home Office, the agreement will attract the “best and brightest” coming to Britain through legal routes, while “stopping the abuse of the system and speeding up the removal of those who have no right to be in the UK”.

India and UK have always had a testy relationship on taking back illegal returnees, as verification of nationality has always been a long-drawn process.

Stating that India never encourages illegal migration, Chakravorty noted that the migration and mobility partnership “is a comprehensive document where we will take back Indian nationals”.

“It is our solemn duty that Indian nationals who are undocumented or are in distress abroad and are not being given nationality or resident permit have to be taken back, and I think we will do that,” said the senior MEA official.

Besides, the two countries also released “Roadmap 2030” to elevate relations to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”.

In defence and security cooperation, the two leaders announced the finalisation of a new logistics pact. “They agreed to increase maritime co-operation, inviting the UK’s Liaison Officer to India’s Information Fusion Centre, establishing an annual India-UK Maritime Dialogue and strengthening operational coordination,” said the joint statement.

With the UK’s carrier strike group deployed in the Indian Ocean this year, the Indian military will be holding joint exercises to “deepen cooperation in a region of critical strategic importance to both countries,” added the bilateral document.

The UK has publicly announced a greater spotlight on the Indo-Pacific region, largely with an eye to counter the rising naval presence of China.