Prospects of relations between India and the European Union (EU) and the rest of the continent should be assessed keeping in mind the shifting geopolitical equations; the state of EU; the challenges it is facing; and the new world order likely to emerge and replace the departing world order. Here, it will be useful to also look at what has been attempted and achieved since 2014.
In 2014, a new government with a comfortable parliamentary majority led by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi took charge in India. In March 2016, PM Modi visited Brussels and attended the 13th India-EU Summit. The Summit should have been held in 2014 as India and the EU had earlier agreed to meet at a summit level once every two years. The previous summit had been held in 2012 but a few issues – including the case of two Italian marines held in India after they shot dead two Indian fishermen – delayed the next summit. Italy had taken an unreasonable stand in the matter arguing that it alone had jurisdiction as the tanker Enrica Lexie was flying the Italian flag. Italy’s position was not sustainable as the fishing boat was as much protected by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the tanker. The EU lent support to Italy – albeit it had no case – out of a sense of EU solidarity by delaying the summit.
The 13th Summit resulted in the EU-India Agenda for Action 2020, which provides for cooperation on a variety of issues such as clean energy, climate partnership, water partnership, migration, mobility, and counter-terrorism. The Agenda for Action is ambitious and it is for the two partners to work together to meet the commonly agreed targets.
India wanted the EU's endorsement of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) first proposed by India at the UN General Assembly in 1996. Though Brussels had suffered a major terrorist attack in March 2016 resulting in the deaths of 32 innocent civilians, the EU was unable to endorse India’s CCIT.
Another matter which did not see much progress is the Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA), negotiations for which began in 2006. An agreement is yet to be reached over some issues including services, data security, visa facilitation, market access to some goods, geographical indications, and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) relating to pharmaceutical products. Another summit is due later this year in New Delhi.
Even without the BTIA, India-EU trade has grown appreciably with the EU being India’s top trade partner, with trade between the two accounting for 13.5 per cent of India’s global trade in 2015-16. The value of India’s exports rose from 22.6 billion Euros in 2006 to 39.3 billion Euros in 2016. India’s imports jumped from 24.2 billion Euros to 37.8 billion Euros during the same period.
While examining the prospects of India-Europe cooperation, one must start with a clarification. The words “European Union” represent more an aspiration than a reality. Europe’s population is 740 million (as of 2016), but the EU only has a population of 510 million. If and when UK leaves the EU, the latter’s population will drop by 65 million. The short point is that India should concentrate on its bilateral relations with the member-states on all matters other than trade and investment for reasons explained below. In fact, India has intensified its relations bilaterally with key countries and this trend will continue.
At present the EU is facing a few serious problems. Brexit, if it happens, will hurt both UK and the EU. The EU’s plans for 'Common Security and Foreign Policy' (CSFP) is yet to take off and its prospects for success will be seriously affected by Brexit. The EU has failed to arrive at a common policy on refugees coming from Syria and elsewhere. Its agreement with Turkey on refugees is in danger of unravelling.
Though election results in the Netherlands and France have shown that anti-EU political parties have not done well, the fact remains that there is a general trend to look at the EU with a degree of disenchantment and the popular dissatisfaction with the Brussels bureaucracy shows no sign of decreasing.
Geopolitical equations are being rewritten. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the 2017 G20 meeting in Hamburg, the EU can no longer depend on the US. We are witnessing a move away from a world where the US played a leading role since the end of World War II. After Donald Trump took office as the president of the US, there has been a radical change in Washington's policy. With his policy or slogan of “America First,” Trump has withdrawn from the historic 2015 Paris Accord on Climate Change which the previous US President Barack Obama had taken the lead in getting adopted. Trump has walked out of the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and has raised questions about North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He has questioned the advantage of free trade and globalisation.
The key question is as to what extent the EU or its major member-states and India can work together in shaping the emerging new world order. Both India and the EU want the new order to be based on values they share. But it is unclear whether the EU is able and willing to adopt an independent foreign policy, primarily a policy independent of US policy. It is not being suggested that the EU should begin taking a line opposed to Washington. The fact of the matter is that till now Washington influenced EU policy and the EU hardly influenced US policy. What is required for the EU, if it is serious about the CSDP, is to be less dependent on the US. While it is almost impossible to work with the US on a basis of equality, there is some scope for making it less unequal. India realised early enough that the CSDP’s chances of taking off are rather bleak and hence chose the bilateral route, especially with Germany and France.
There are some areas where the EU has made and can make significant contributions. One area of importance is peace-keeping and peace-building. The EU tried to mediate in Egypt to prevent the 2013 Rabaa massacre in Cairo after the military coup against the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s history. The EU’s High Representative, Catherine Ashton, worked hard and succeeded in drawing out an agreement. If Egypt’s military had accepted it, the massacre could have been avoided. What is sad is that though the EU had every reason to be proud of the mediation effort, there is no mention of it in the 2013 annual report, possibly because the EU was keen to cultivate the new regime in Cairo.
The EU has the right credentials to be a trusted mediator and can do more in this sphere. Both India and the EU should consider the potential for working together in this regard. Africa is another area for India and the EU to collaborate. Piloted by Chancellor Merkel, the G20 Summit in Hamburg has endorsed an ambitious plan for Africa’s progress. India, with its historic connections with Africa can be a valuable partner for Germany.
Vis-à-vis trade and investment, there has been no movement since 2014, partly because of the obstacles placed by Italy as mentioned above and also because of the EU’s unwillingness to offer to India terms that take into account the needs of India’s economy. With regard to London, the strong bilateral ties of history have made it possible for the two to have a conversation that started in 1947. However, on political matters, including terrorism, Brussels does not have much to offer and New Delhi needs to talk to EU capitals such as Berlin and Paris. Overall, India has recognised the limitations in dealing with the EU as a partner in matters beyond trade, investment, and related matters.