India-U.K. free trade pact may miss October deadline

The India-U.K. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) may not be ready in time for its “Diwali” or October-end deadline indicated both New Delhi and London, as India reacted sharply to British Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s statement linking the FTA with migration issues and the U.K. government said “quality”, not “speed” would determine the FTA’s launch.

Responding to questions at the weekly media briefing, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said that Diwali (October 24) was only “a goal”, seemingly downplaying the time-bound negotiating deadline that had been set in the India-U.K. joint statement in April this year, as well as comments by then-U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “get it done by Diwali”.

“There is interest on both sides to conclude the FTA at the earliest,” said Mr. Bagchi replying to a specific question about the timeline. “I think Diwali was set as a goal, but… that is a goal. I understand that intense discussions are under way and are continuing,” he added.

When asked, the British government also declined to give a direct commitment on the timing for the FTA announcement, which was expected to coincide with a proposed visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the U.K.. It is understood that the U.K. and India are still targetting the end of October for concluding the “majority of talks” on the FTA, without necessarily signing the agreement.

“We remain clear that we won’t sacrifice quality for speed and will only sign when we have a deal that meets the U.K.’s interests,” a British government spokesperson said in response to a question from  The Hindu, stressing that the trade deal is a “huge opportunity to deepen our already strong trading relationship worth £24.3bn a year, which will benefit businesses and sectors right across both our countries.”

As  The Hindu had reported on Thursday, comments by British Home Secretary Suella Braverman earlier this week appeared to throw a dampener on the FTA, when she expressed “reservations” and “concerns” about any trade deal with India that involved more migration or visa flexibility, given what she called the largest number of Indian migrants overstaying illegally in the U.K..

Mr. Bagchi said he would not want to respond to the comments that were made “perhaps for domestic perspectives”.

Meanwhile, the Indian High Commission in London issued a detailed rejoinder to Ms. Braverman, calling comments while negotiations are underway inappropriate, and accusing the U.K. of not having made “demonstrable progress” on its commitments as part of the “Migration and Mobility Protocol” signed by both governments last year.

“While certain issues pertaining to Mobility and Migration are currently under discussion as part of these negotiations, any comment on these matters may not be appropriate given that the negotiations are underway, and that any arrangement will include issues of interest to both sides,” said the Indian High Commission spokesperson, adding that the Government of India (GoI) is “committed” to facilitate the return of Indians citizens who have overstayed their visa period and has initiated action “on all of the cases referred to the High Commission.”

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