London: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is keen to clinch a free trade agreement (FTA) with India in time for Easter, which falls at the end of March 2024, according to a UK media report.
The India-UK FTA talks began in January last year, aimed at significantly enhancing the GBP 36-billion bilateral trading partnership. A new round of negotiations, expected to be the last, is set to start early in the new year after the thirteenth round concluded on December 15.
“Prime Minister Mr Sunak and India’s premier Narendra Modi are said to be keen to get the deal wrapped up by April,” reads a report in the ‘Daily Express’ newspaper updated on Saturday.
“It is hoped a deal can be signed and sealed before India’s general elections begin on April 1,” it claims.
The newspaper quoted a source close to the trade talks on the UK side to say that a lot of progress has been made, but some of the “hardest” aspects remain pending.
“We have made a lot of progress, but the last stuff to do is the hardest. We have negotiators out there most weeks going through the details, and we have a deadline of their elections,” the source told the newspaper.
”Both Rishi Sunak and Modi remain keen, so it’s just a case of seeing if we can get it over the line,” the source added.
The UK hopes an FTA will open up its trade in Scotch whisky and cars to India, as well as services and investment opportunities. Meanwhile, India would seek better access to its manufactured goods and services and a deal on professional visas.
With both India and the UK heading into a general election year in 2024, signing off on a trade agreement has taken on particular urgency before leaders on both sides get into campaign mode. A joint outcome statement released last week by the UK Department for Business and Trade (DBT) said: “The thirteenth round of negotiations for the UK-India Free Trade Agreement took place from 18 September to 15 December. The round included sessions, both in person, in London and Delhi, and virtual talks. ”As with round 12, these negotiations focused on complex issues, including goods, services, and investment. The UK and India will continue to negotiate towards a comprehensive and ambitious Free Trade Agreement. The fourteenth round of negotiations will take place in January 2024,” the statement said.
Under the format so far, the fourteenth round is likely to be hosted by London, with talks taking place between officials in a hybrid format – both in person and virtually.
“We have made substantial progress… I think both sides are very aware of the importance of the FTA and will make the utmost effort to get there. So, we have to take it as it happens,” External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told reporters after his meetings with Sunak and other senior Cabinet ministers during a UK visit last month.
There had been some speculation that cricket enthusiast Sunak would be following up his first India visit as British prime minister for the G20 Summit in September with some cricket diplomacy at the England versus India World Cup clash in Lucknow on October 29 – when the highly anticipated FTA could be signed off.
However, the internal political turmoil of a Cabinet reshuffle within the Tory party and the Israel-Hamas conflict on the global front were said to have side-tracked focus.
“We are very close… We will finish when we finish,” UK Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch told a House of Commons committee when last questioned about timelines. Officially, the Sunak-led government has held a firm ”it’s the deal, not the date” line to avoid setting firm timelines since former prime minister Boris Johnson’s Diwali 2022 deadline for an India-UK FTA was missed.