London: India and the UK are “very close” to achieving a mutually beneficial free trade agreement (FTA) but the aspects left to agree on are the toughest ones, Britain’s Business and Trade Secretary in charge of the negotiations has told a parliamentary panel.
Kemi Badenoch was answering questions posed by the cross-party House of Commons Business and Trade Committee, which scrutinises the work of the Department of Business and Trade (DBT), Tuesday when she was asked about the timeline for signing off on the FTA – which has completed 12 rounds of negotiations.
The Cabinet minister was specifically asked about some UK media reports suggesting that cricket fan British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak may be planning a return visit to India next month to sign the deal on the sidelines of the World Cup being hosted across the country.
“We have never set a deadline. I think this is a very optimistic briefing for newspapers,” responded Badenoch.
“We are very close. It is possible, but I wouldn’t be setting that sort of deadline. We will finish when we finish,” she said.
Referencing former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson setting a Diwali 2022 deadline for an agreement, Badenoch reiterated the Sunak-led government’s approach of not setting any end dates.
“We had the same thing last year, where they said we’re going to have a deal by Diwali. Once you set a date, you create problems on your own side. We have always been very, very specific that it’s about the deal, not the day. And, we will get there when we have a deal that is mutually beneficial for India and for the UK. We’ve done quite a lot, so it is close,” she said.
“It’s the Pareto principle, that the few bits left are always the toughest bits,” she added.
The Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 principle, is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto and is a phenomenon that states that roughly 80 per cent of outcomes come from 20 per cent of causes.
Badenoch reviewed progress with her Indian counterpart, Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal, during a visit to India last month coinciding with Round 12 of the FTA negotiations.
Sunak’s visit to New Delhi for the G20 Leaders’ Summit earlier this month also concluded with a commitment to an FTA, with the British Indian leader telling reporters that he “won’t rush things”.
Meanwhile, amid a diplomatic standoff between two of its allies — India and Canada — over the contentious issue of pro-Khalistan extremism, Sunak’s spokesperson at Downing Street reiterated this week that trade talks with New Delhi remain on track.
“Work on the trade negotiations will continue as before… when we have concerns with countries we’re negotiating trade deals with, we’ll raise them directly,” the spokesperson told reporters Tuesday.
According to official DBT figures, UK-India bilateral trade was worth an estimated GBP 36 billion in 2022 — a figure expected to be significantly boosted with an FTA.