May’s Indian Outreach Falters as Modi, Tata Play Hard to Get

Updated on
  • Modi: Indian students must be encouraged to study overseas
  • May: British visa system is already letting in ‘brightest’

Is Brexit Weighing on U.K.'s India Trade Mission?

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May clashed with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi over migration rules and failed to arrange a meeting with senior figures at Tata Group in a double blow to her three-day visit to India.

QuickTake Brexit

Modi called on Britain on Monday to support more Indian students who want to enroll at universities in the U.K, as he appeared alongside May at a technology summit in New Delhi. 

Follow @Brexit for the latest news, and sign up to our Brexit Bulletin for a daily roundup.

Theresa May and Narendra Modi on Nov. 7

Photographer: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

“Education is vital for our students and will define our engagement in a shared future,” he said. “We must therefore encourage greater mobility and participation of young people in education and research opportunities.”

Modi’s comments, as May sat beside him on stage, are likely to escalate the long-running disagreement between India and the U.K. over restrictions on student visas. May’s policy of requiring students to return home after their courses end, which dates back to her time as home secretary responsible for immigration, caused the number of Indian students enrolling in British universities to fall by 50 percent.

Speaking later in a press conference alongside Modi, May sought to bridge the divide by holding out the prospect of visa reforms as part of a “strategic dialog on home-affairs issues covering visas, returns and organized crime.”

“The U.K. 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 U.K.,” May said. The Indian government is invited to nominate business executives to a “bespoke visa and immigration service,” she added.

May earlier told reporters traveling with her that her migration rules are working well.

“We have a visa system for countries outside the European Union which ensures that the brightest and the best are able to come to the United Kingdom,” the U.K. premier said. “The figures show that we issued more work visas to India than, I think, the U.S., Australia, Canada and China put together.”

The dispute over migration could be a sign of the difficulties ahead for May as she seeks to pave the way for deals with countries outside the EU after leaving the bloc. She sees controlling Britain’s borders as key to satisfying the voters who backed Brexit in the June referendum but risks antagonizing countries she will need as trade and investment partners.

‘Regular Contacts’

Separately, May told reporters she was unable to arrange a meeting with senior figures at Tata, whose 4,000 workers at a steel plant in Port Talbot, south Wales, face an uncertain future. The company announced a plan to sell all or part of its British business in March.

“I had hoped to meet the key people from Tata while I was in India,” May said on Sunday at the start of her trip. “Sadly, the schedules don’t allow for me to do that on this particular visit but there are regular contacts between the government and Tata Steel.”

Seeking to highlight positive elements of her trip, May said more than 1 billion pounds ($1.2 billion) of business deals would be signed during her visit, and announced Indian plans to list four “masala bonds” totaling 600 million pounds in London by the end of January. 

“This is a vote of confidence in India’s growth story, and it’s a vote of confidence in London as the world’s leading financial center,” May said.

She also announced agreements to cooperate on intellectual-property rules, tackle the use of the Internet by extremists, develop energy-efficient cities in India and remove trade barriers.

‘Outward Looking’

In her speech to the business summit on Monday, May said the U.K. and India don’t need to wait for Brexit before stepping up trade.

“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 said. “We know from history what happens when countries do not embrace the opportunities of the world. They stagnate. They get poorer. They don’t protect their people; they make them worse off.”

May’s trip offers a chance to recover momentum after a double setback at home last week, when she lost a court case over Parliament’s role in Britain’s divorce from the EU and one of her lawmakers quit in protest at her strategy. Brexit Secretary David Davis is likely to lead her counter-offensive in the House of Commons on Monday as officials prepare an appeal to the Supreme Court, due to be heard next month.

The ruling that May must consult Parliament before starting Brexit negotiations threatens to slow down and complicate the process of leaving the EU and could dilute her plans to deliver on the referendum result. The Daily Mail was among newspapers that criticized the judges, branding them “enemies of the people,” and sparking anger from lawyers who were further incensed by the government’s reluctance to condemn the coverage.

‘Completely Unacceptable’

“The personal attacks on the judges are completely unacceptable," the opposition Labour Party’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, told BBC Radio on Monday.

“I believe in and value the independence of our judiciary," May told reporters on the plane. “I also value the freedom of our press. I think these both underpin our democracy.”

The government has a “strong” legal case for why lawmakers should not get to vote on when to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would begin Britain’s formal exit from the EU, she said. Starmer told the BBC Labour wouldn’t seek to block the triggering of Article 50.