A former British cabinet minister has raised serious doubts on whether the Theresa May government will be able to forge a free trade pact with India after Brexit, pointing to continuing intransigence in London over the key issue of visas.
Vince Cable, who was business secretary in the David Cameron government during 2010-15, was involved in EU-India free trade negotiations with two Indian commerce ministers – Anand Sharma and Nirmala Seetharaman. He told Hindustan Times the main reason the talks did not move forward was objections raised on mobility issues by then British home secretary Theresa May.
Launched in 2007, talks on the EU-India trade deal continue to be stalled, but there are indications from Brussels that there are better chances of the deal being struck after Britain leaves the European Union.
India, Cable said, now approaches any bilateral negotiation with Brexit-bound Britain from a position of strength. “The sight of the former colonial master coming cap in hand will whet Indian appetites for a deal in India’s favour.”
As prime minister, May has often mentioned India as a free trade partner, and had initial talks with Indian representatives during her visit to New Delhi in November, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi again raised the issue of mobility for students and professionals.
Cable said: “There is no sign of rethinking on the visa issue. I don’t think it (UK-India free trade pact with India) will happen. Both Sharma and Seetharaman valued good relations, but there was quite a serious obstacle on the mobility issue in the trade talks.
“Britain’s current crop of ministers seem not to have taken on board that the attempted EU-India agreement foundered not because of the rest of the EU but, in substantial part, because Britain rejected it.
“Attempts to open the UK to more Indian IT specialists and other professionals (the so-called Mode 4) foundered on the objections of Theresa May. The main irritant in UK-India relations is visas. In the absence of creative ideas on freeing up immigration and visiting rights from India, ministers will continue to get a flea in their ear in Delhi.”
Cable, who has long-standing family links in India, said India’s demand for easier visas for professionals was modest, but May came up with “silly objections” as the home secretary. “It would have affected a small number of professionals, not large-scale immigration,” he added.
“And nothing is more irritating (and incomprehensible) to the Indians than Britain’s self-harming and very silly policy of counting overseas students against the immigration total; the services of our universities are amongst the few British products Indians actually want to buy. For these reasons, Theresa May appears to have come away empty handed,” he said.
“Failing agreement on these sensitive and difficult issues, the Indians will ask for something else. Weapons? Something else Britain is good at, but they affect the power balance in South Asia and relations with Pakistan. Taking India’s side on Jammu and Kashmir? Tricky.”
Known to be staunchly pro-EU, Cable, one of the top leaders of the Liberal Democrats, said many British Indians were “seriously misled” by promises about immigration made by the Brexit camp during the EU referendum campaign.