When the UK left the UK-EU transition period on 31 December 2021, it ended free trade of goods and services with a trading bloc of 450m people partly because the price of freedom of movement of people was considered to be too high. Immigration control was consistently ranked as the number one reason to vote to leave the EU in the June 2016 referendum. Consequently, EU nationals who wish to come to the UK are now subject to immigration control and require residence permits.
It is interesting therefore that the promise of easier immigration to the UK forms part of new trade deal negotiations with India.
This makes sense for both countries as the UK has a labour shortage and India has a high level of unemployment. The UK’s main exports of services, luxury goods, high-end engineering, pharmaceuticals and cars are less relevant for the Indian market in general or would be in direct competition with the existing market in a country with a more protectionist approach. It could be argued that, apart from whisky, the UK has little to offer India apart from lucrative job opportunities.
Is it possible for the UK to expand the migration opportunities for Indian nationals sufficiently to make it attractive enough for the deal to be signed? Indian nationals are already the number one recipient of UK work permits (Indians receive a third of all Skilled Worker visas) thanks to the demand for IT workers in the UK plus the advantage that all Indian degrees are taught in English and the historic links between the two countries.
Under current rules, Indian nationals – in common with the rest of the world – who wish to come to the UK will usually need a skilled job offer from a sponsor licence holder, a place at a higher education institution or be a close family member of someone already residing in the UK.
UK immigration is relatively certain and straightforward if you can meet the criteria, but it is very expensive.
The UK could potentially assist Indian nationals by agreeing preferential visa fees such as lowering the skills levy or the health levy. It is also possible that the UK could agree to allow India to join the Youth Mobility scheme which offers an easy route for those aged 18-30 to live here for two years. Most of all, the UK could grant Indian nationals visa free visitor access to the UK doing away with costly tourist or business visitor visas.
India has always made it clear that easier access to the UK labour market would be the price for a trade deal. Such a move on the UK’s part could work well for both parties but it could equally set a precedent for future trade deals which may not ease the minds of those concerned about levels of net migration.