LONDON - Britain has indicated that is will seek a so-called "hard" exit from the European Union, likely to include leaving the Single Market, the world’s largest free trade bloc. The country is looking for new trading partners around the world, but the government will find it difficult to balance voters’ demands for lower immigration with the need for new free trade deals.
The British government says its vision is of a more global Britain, trading freely with growing economies like India and China once it is outside the European Union.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited several Indian cities last week, eager to build bridges before Britain drops out of the European Union.
“We may be leaving the EU, we may be we may be taking back control of our borders. But my Indian friends, I say to you, that does not mean we want to haul up the drawbridge,” he said.
But critics say Britain is doing just that even as it asks India to open trade talks.
Tightening of visa system
Education is a major British product. But numbers of Indian students in Britain are falling fast, halving in just five years. India blames Britain’s tightening visa system.
Pratik Dattani is British director for the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
“It is not all one way traffic, that the UK can sell internationally and not bring anything in," said Dattani. "There has to be an open policy in terms of allowing immigration.”
That could be a tough sell to Britons who voted to leave the EU hoping it would cut immigration.
Britain is hoping for flexibility. At the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, Indian ministers voiced willingness to discuss a deal. But no formal talks can take place until after Britain has left the European Union. Even then, a deal would likely take years to reach agreement, says Dattani.
“India and the EU have been negotiating a free trade agreement for seven or eight years. And many of the areas that have meant it has taken such a long time have been asks from the UK itself,” said Dattani.
Seeking new trade deals
Britain says it will look to the Commonwealth for new trade deals when it leaves the European Union. A Commonwealth heads of government meeting is due to take place later this year in London.
"That is an opportunity really for the British government to show the rest of the Commonwealth, of which India is a massive part, that Britain is open for business," he said.
Despite the big ambitions, analysts say Britain will find it difficult to strike quick trade deals after it leaves the European Union. That has raised fears in London that businesses could face a so-called cliff edge the day Britain leaves the bloc.