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Student visa not on FTA agenda: UK trade secretary

UK secretary of state for international tradeKemi Badenoch has spent the last two days in India holding consultations with her Indian counterpart Piyush Goyal in a bid to ensure that talks for a bilateral trade agreement stay on course. In an exclusive interview, the UK minister talks about the demands to open professional services, lowering import duty on scotch as also flexibility on intellectual property rights (IPRs), while maintaining India’s sensitivities need to be honoured. Excerpts: How was your meeting with Mr Goyal, did you make some headway? It was very constructive. It’s in the context of a refresh to the free trade agreement (FTA), between elections in Gujarat and change of our PM over the summer, things had quietened down. A lot of people thought this is a deal we are not doing any more, which is not true. A lot of progress has been made, we have done a majority of what needs to be done but this is the tough bit — it is always the last few bits where the most difficult things are discussed. What was helpful was having Mr Goyal and me in the same room, with both negotiating teams and they could hear us on what we agreed on and what we did not agree on, so that we don’t have a situation where Mr Goyal and I agree but the negotiating teams disagree. We have both instructed them to move at pace. What are the key areas of interest for the UK? Are legal and financial services among them? Both sides want a really ambitious deal, but it really has to be balanced. When we come in we have multiple asks. At some point, concessions will have to be made. On professional services, it’s across the board. The UK is already a relatively liberalised economy. We believe in free trade and a rules-based trading system. India is the largest democratic country on earth, and it also shares a lot of understanding of our legal system and rules. There are also a few things, whether for legal, political or cultural reasons, where it’s best not to be in the FTA.


What about things like scotch or automobiles, where the tariffs in India are high? That’s something you would have heard our whisky makers talk about. I am working very hard to get a deal that works for them. But the UK is not just about whisky, there is much more. India wants much more from us. Whether it’s on technology, pharmaceuticals, clean energy, there are many areas on which we can collaborate. We are looking how it will improve the quality of life for people in India and the UK. Like Australia, is the UK willing to accept that there are sensitivities in India on agriculture and some other products? Both sides are having to do that. The UK economy is very different from Australia, but there will always be sensitivities. I will have farmers in the UK who would want me to protect, just like Mr Goyal. What we need to make sure is that people are not overly worried about problems that are not going to occur. Whenever a change is going to occur, people are anxious about what that change would be and what we are trying to do is create an FTA that improves everybody’s circumstances. For India, visas for business visitors and students are of particular interest. There are some concerns in the UK. How do you reconcile those positions? We need to look at them separately. The trade deal looks at mobility, which is different from migration, and we have lot of great business people coming to the UK from India and we welcome them. They are very clever, very industrious, the same as the students. The trade deal is really around business and economic growth. So, student visas aren’t something I would be looking at in an FTA. It doesn’t mean we are not doing it, but the text of the FTA is something that survives the test of time, something that India has also said. It has to be sustainable. India has the most student visas that the UK issues, but an FTA is on trade and we want to focus on trade matters, rather than bringing in other things that are not specific to it. There are certain issues such as IPRs on which Indian officials and health activists have concerns. Is flexibility around IPRs something that the UK sees as a must have? In terms of IP there are other areas we are looking at, it may be difficult because the UK is an advanced country that can afford a lot more than India can do in terms of size and per capita income. You need an FTA that is able to manage those two different scenarios. It will probably reduce the scope of what we can do but there is a lot of positive stuff. Do you have a timeframe in mind for FTA? We need to focus on the quality of the deal, not speed. What we have done, Mr Goyal and I, is to get the negotiators to move at pace, and I am hoping to see him early next year, ideally in London. I don’t have a deadline in mind.

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