Despite being a strong economic entity of 28 major European countries, and India’s largest trading partner, the European Union (EU) does not figure prominently in India’s foreign policy conversation. The general perception of the bloc has been one of an economic player with little political weight and influence in international relations. The India-EU political relationship has been particularly constrained in the dimension of nuclear non-proliferation. But, the situation might be changing in contemporary times. Given the increased focus of the EU itself on non-proliferation and its changed view of India, given India’s own outreach on the uniqueness of its relationship with the cause and instruments of non-proliferation, and given the transformed international context, there is an opportunity for the long-standing estrangement to blossom into a non-proliferation partnership.
Among the traditional roadblocks in cooperation between India and EU has been the latter’s own lack of focus on non-proliferation in the 1970s-1980s, a period in which India was grappling with growing nuclear and missile proliferation from China to Pakistan and beyond. Engaged as the EU was until the early 1990s on internal consolidation issues, there was no unitary approach on the risks from nuclear non-proliferation. This issue, in fact, came into the EU's sharp focus only in the run up to the NPT Review and Extension Conference in 1995. It was then that the EU put its weight behind the unconditional and indefinite extension of the NPT, a treaty which has never been a favourite with India. Three years later when India felt the imperative to demonstrate its nuclear weapons capability through the conduct of tests, the EU (as a bloc) displayed little understanding for Indian security compulsions, though some member states such as France were less critical. Subsequently, EU’s continued insistence on the universality of the NPT and its championing of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) have been among the major reasons for keeping it distant from India.
The relationship, however, began to show signs of change in the first half of the 2000s. The two entered into a Strategic Partnership in 2004 and this presaged the EU's ability to become a facilitator in India’s accommodation into the non-proliferation regime once the US began the process in 2005. Of course, some of the EU member states did not find this easy in view of India’s ‘defiance’ of the NPT. The issue of making an exception for India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was vociferously projected as a test case for EU’s own commitment to non-proliferation. Some EU member states still argue as before that allowing India access to international nuclear commerce without getting it to accept a non-nuclear weapons status under the NPT amounts to undermining the regime.
However, India’s proactive outreach to the EU as a whole, and to its individual members, has enabled a better understanding of Indian support for the principles of non-proliferation despite its inability to join the NPT in its current formulation. EU support, en masse, for India’s membership of the NSG would, in fact, help to underline, not undermine, the distinction between responsible and irresponsible nuclear behaviour and encourage non-proliferation. It is a specious argument to tie India’s membership to the NSG with similar treatment of other non-NPT states. Especially so, when the cases are so dissimilar in their non-proliferation history, behaviour, nuclear doctrines, and capability build-up, leave alone in fomenting dangers of nuclear terrorism from state support for non-state actors. The EU can help mark this distinction and rapidly change the course of India-EU non-proliferation partnership for the benefit of the larger international community.
Another aspect that is different today and bodes well for India-EU cooperation is EU’s own wider focus on the issue of non-proliferation. After having tasted success in the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran in which the EU played a seminal role, the body has become more conscious of its own potential. This awakening is happening simultaneously with the relative retreat of the US under President Donald Trump from the major global non-proliferation issues. Therefore, India and EU find themselves on the same side in arguing for the full and effective implementation of the Iran deal, diplomatic handling of the US-North Korea stand-off, concerns on terrorism, including nuclear terrorism, and support for export controls and nuclear safety.
Many potential areas for a non-proliferation partnership, therefore, can be identified. The first of these could be cooperation in nuclear security, including through collaboration between the Centres of Excellence on both sides that could undertake joint/complementary research in nuclear forensics, training of customs or border officials, or sharing of information or best practices on cyber challenges staring commonly at all in the coming times. Joint research and development on new and more proliferation resistant reactors as also the nuclear safety dimension is another area ripe with possibilities. It may be mentioned that the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) and Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) have envisaged an agreement on R&D cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear energy, as also on fusion energy research.
Another area of partnership can be found in promotion of nuclear disarmament through joint work on verification. Many countries of the EU, as also India, are skeptical of the ability of the recently concluded treaty on prohibition of nuclear weapons (more colloquially called the ban treaty) to be able to achieve a nuclear weapons-free world. Among the drawbacks of the treaty is its inability to have fleshed out the thorny issues of how to verifiably get rid of existing nuclear weapons. Indeed, lack of verification procedures and mechanisms remains an impediment to the acceptance of the feasibility of disarmament. This is an area that needs collaborative effort and the EU and India could find some common ground to work here.
Having remained estranged on non-proliferation for many decades, India and EU have plenty of scope for a meaningful partnership in the current times. There is a shared concern on non-proliferation which is perhaps being felt with equal intensity, and there is a willingness to explore common solutions. The possibilities are immense and must be exploited prudently by both sides to further a cause that is central to international security.