May calls for India, UK to step up trade links

Mrs May and Mr Modi at Hyderabad House in New Delhi yesterday. Both countries set up a joint working group on trade and signed agreements in areas such as developing energy-efficient cities in India. Mrs May also announced two visa schemes for busine
Mrs May and Mr Modi at Hyderabad House in New Delhi yesterday. Both countries set up a joint working group on trade and signed agreements in areas such as developing energy-efficient cities in India. Mrs May also announced two visa schemes for business travellers.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

British PM seeks to boost ties, but tight visa rules for Indian nationals still a thorny issue

Visiting British Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to make travel to Britain easier for Indian business travellers, as she sought to woo the world's fastest-growing economy and shore up trade links to prepare for Britain's exit from the European Union.

But Mrs May, who has made India her first trade mission outside Europe since becoming Prime Minister in July, did not make any major concession on relaxing visa rules for Indian students or professionals, an issue New Delhi is concerned about.

Mrs May, who is accompanied by a delegation of British businessmen, said yesterday that business agreements worth more than a billion pounds would be signed during her three-day visit to India.

She said both countries did not have to wait until Britain leaves the EU to boost trade ties.

"As Britain leaves the EU, we're determined not to turn our backs on the world, but to forge a new, global, outward-looking role for ourselves," she told a business summit.

Following talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she announced two visa schemes for business travellers, including an invitation to the Indian government - the first to any foreign country - to nominate individuals to be part of a bespoke visa and immigration service.

Indian officials said they had raised strongly the issue of facilitating travel for Indian students and "other bona fide travellers".

Mrs May's policy of requiring students to return home after their courses ended - made when she was Home Secretary - had caused the number of Indian students enrolling in British universities to plunge over the last six years.

Mr Modi alluded to the tightening of visa norms at a summit alongside Mrs May yesterday, noting "education is vital for our students".

He said: "We must therefore encourage greater mobility and participation of young people in educational and research opportunities."

While noting that Britain continues to welcome "the brightest and the best of India's students", Mrs May held out the prospect of visa reforms under a "strategic dialogue on home-affairs issues covering visas, returns and organised crime".

"The UK will consider further improvements to our visa offer if at the same time we can step up the speed and volume of returns of Indians with no right to remain in the UK," she said at a press conference.

Both countries also set up a joint working group on trade, which Mrs May said would "pave the way for securing a deeper trade relationship" once Britain leaves the EU.

Britain is the third-largest investor in India after Mauritius and Singapore with a cumulative equity investment of US$22.56 billion (S$31.4 billion) over the last 15 years. Despite their strong historical ties, British-Indian bilateral trade was just around US$14 billion last year - below that between India and Germany.

Britain and India also signed agreements in areas including developing energy-efficient cities in India and improving the ease of doing business in India, a major goal of the Modi government.

Analysts believe it will take time for the two countries to substantially increase trade linkages.

"There is no dynamism in Indo-British trade... And there is also a lot of lot of scepticism about a special trade deal," said former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

He added: "We have been negotiating a trade deal with the EU for over six years and there is still no end in sight."

Mrs May will visit the southern tech hub of Bangalore today.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2016, with the headline 'May calls for India, UK to step up trade links'. Print Edition | Subscribe