Let’s get India-UK FTA done, says Boris Johnson at HT Leadership Summit
Boris Johnson said the emergence of Rishi Sunak as Britain’s first prime minister of Indian extraction was a “fantastic thing”, not just in terms of what it said about British society but also because it showed that the ruling Conservative Party as the pre-eminent party of opportunity and hope
NEW DELHI: Former British prime minister Boris Johnson on Saturday made a strong pitch for the speedy conclusion of the India-UK free trade agreement (FTA), including steps to remove high tariffs on British products such as Scotch whisky and automobiles and to ensure the mobility of Indian professionals.
“Let’s get it [FTA] done,” Johnson said several times during a conversation with HT editor-in-chief R Sukumar at the 20th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, pointing to the enormous opportunities that the deal will open up for businesses and “hard-pressed consumers” in both countries.
Johnson described the emergence of Rishi Sunak as Britain’s first prime minister of Indian extraction as a “fantastic thing”, not just in terms of what it said about British society but also because it showed that the ruling Conservative Party – which produced three women prime ministers and the first premier of South Asian descent – as the pre-eminent party of opportunity and hope in the UK.
India and the UK missed the deadline to conclude the FTA by Diwali, which was celebrated on October 24, because of differences on several key issues, including the Indian demand for greater mobility for students and professionals and the British call for greater market access in certain areas and for lowering tariffs on items such as Scotch whisky.
“Let us finally deliver that FTA which mysteriously seems to have developed a flat tyre since I left office,” Johnson said. Pointing to the earlier Diwali deadline, he added, “I’m not going to wait till the next Diwali before we do that free trade deal.”
While questioning the 150% tariff on Scotch whisky which he described as ridiculous and absurd, and whether the “Indian dairy lobby” is determined to keep out British cheese, Johnson also asked: “Why should British consumers be deprived of good value footwear made in India?”
At the same time, it will be good for India to get better access to the UK finance and capital markets, while Britain can benefit from the talents of Indian software programmers.
“Let’s take all this to the next level, let’s get that free trade deal done because it is the height of insanity that we have beautiful British Jaguars and Land Rovers made in the West Midlands facing huge tariffs – 125% tariffs – on import into India when Jaguar Land Rover is owned by a great Indian company,” he said.
People familiar with the matter have said the India-UK FTA is unlikely to be finalised till 2023, largely because of the recent political turmoil in Britain, where Johnson’s resignation in July resulted in a churn within the Conservative Party. Johnson’s successor, Liz Truss, was in office for just 44 days as the UK’s shortest-serving premier. Following Truss’ resignation in October, Rishi Sunak was chosen as the new prime minister by the Tories.
Johnson noted that even without an FTA, India-UK trade had increased by 28% and the two sides are taking their ties to the next level in line with the Roadmap 2030 that he had finalised with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The “first results of the Modi-Johnson deal” was the approval for the export of more Indian shrimps and the import of more British apples, he said.
India has become the number one country of origin for overseas students in the UK and “108,000 Indian students [are] helping to support our education industry”, while British master’s degrees are recognised for academic and professional purposes in India, he added.
Asked about a realistic timeframe for the FTA, Johnson replied: “I hope it can be done as soon as possible, I really don’t know what the holdup is.” He added that the British side “should not let immigration be the problem” as there is “huge merit in having people come in from overseas”.
Responding to a question on whether the Tories were facing problems in balancing their Brexit-related promises on immigration with mobility under trade deals, Johnson said the British people are “not xenophobic or hostile to foreigners” but want a sense that the government they elected is in control of what is happening.
Johnson said the India-UK relationship under Rishi Sunak is “going to follow the same phenomenal trajectory”. He added, “We need each other now more than ever because as Prime Minister Modi has said, as external affairs minister S Jaishankar has said, we live in dangerous and turbulent times.”
Even if the UK and India are not drawn together by ties of love, family, trade and commerce and economic self-interest, they will be “drawn together by this fervour and vital reason that we two democracies...are forced to cope together with the irresponsible and sometimes dangerous behaviour of the world’s coercive autocracies.”