What Drives the EU Towards India?

14 Mar, 2019    ·   5566

Pieter-jan Dockx and Manuel Herrera analyse the developments that motivate Brussels to seek closer alignments that go beyond the transatlantic relationship

On 20 November 2018, the EU published ‘Elements for an EU strategy on India,’ which set out Brussels’ future approach towards New Delhi. This policy paper was the bloc’s most recent publication on EU-India relations, 14 years after its previous communication on the subject. A comparative study between both documents lays bare the changes in the EU’s view on relations with India. Small but significant changes illustrate how Brussels has attached more importance to its relationship with New Delhi. This is not just a consequence of India’s increasing economic importance, but a result of the transatlantic backlash again globalisation and growing European scepticism towards China.

 2004 Vs 2018

New Delhi's increasing significance in EU’s external affairs becomes evident not only through what the new policy paper explicitly specifies, but also the elements that have been left out. In the 2004 communication, Brussels set out to engage India on subjects such as abolition of the death penalty and the ratification of the Convention against Torture. Yet, while capital punishment remains legal in India and the country has not yet ratified the convention in question, both aspects are now absent in the new EU strategy. Instead, the emphasis now is on both EU and India's self-proclaimed shared commitment to human rights.

Further, in the earlier publication, Brussels described the Kashmir question as "primarily a bilateral issue with international implication." Although the EU mostly stood by New Delhi’s position of Kashmir being a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan, the ‘international implications’ reference was still included to appease Islamabad. However, in the recent policy paper, the EU has shifted further towards New Delhi’s position by excluding the Kashmir question entirely.

Developments in the West

Several political developments in the West factor into Brussels’ growing interest in New Delhi. The first of these are the foreign policy consequences of Donald Trump's presidency. Since entering the White House, President Trump has steered his foreign policy away from the transatlantic emphasis on topics such as multilateralism and the importance of international regimes. As a reaction, the EU has attempted to strengthen its relationship with alternative partners like India. This motivation is also visible in the new communication. Throughout the document, references have been made to supporting and strengthening the international rules-based order - even in the title. As a point of reference, this aspect was absent in 2004.

Another important development has been the Brexit referendum and the UK’s prospective departure from the bloc. From a EU perspective, Brexit’s ‘taking back control’ mirrors Trump’s disregard for multilateralism and the rules-based order. Brexit thus further strengthens the need for alternative partners. In addition, with the future EU-UK economic relationship yet to be negotiated, it serves Brussels’ interest to enhance economic cooperation with other parties such as India, before London can expand its own international economic cooperation. For example, the accelerated signing of free trade agreements (FTAs) with Japan and Singapore in 2018 was partly a way for Brussels to increase its relative bargaining position in future trade negotiations with London. With the UK having been India’s closest partner in the EU, it becomes essential for Brussels to enhance its direct relationship with New Delhi prior to a possible British exit.

Developments in the East

Apart from developments in transatlantic politics, the EU is also adapting to new circumstances in Asia. Notably, the continent's economic ascendancy is significant for Brussels. While the EU’s foreign and security policy remains largely in the hands of the member states, the organisation has more autonomy when it comes to external economic policymaking. The FTAs signed with Singapore and Japan exemplify this interest.

New Delhi possibly views the new policy document as a EU attempt to benefit from India’s rising importance, although the overall lack of interest in India at the 2019 Munich Security Conference contradicts this notion. In the bigger picture, it appears that diplomatically, India is one piece of a much broader EU strategy to diversify its foreign relations because of, among other things, the changing global environment.

The final driver is the change in perception about China in Brussels and other European capitals. At the time of the publication of the 2004 document, Europeans were optimistic about China's role in the world. The country was considered to be a key future partner based on their ‘common vision of the world.’ However, today, this optimism has been replaced by apprehension about Chinese policies towards Europe. Brussels has long called on Beijing to lift restrictions on European investment and has even been working on a mechanism to limit Chinese investment in ‘strategic’ assets in the EU. In light of this, India is seen as an alternative to China in terms of economic relations and worldview.


India’s economic rise is no doubt an important factor to explain EU's growing interest in it, given that the latter is still foremost an economic bloc. However, international political developments such as the Trump presidency, growing China scepticism, and the Brexit referendum have had a much greater impact in determining the EU's policy direction towards India. A comparison between the two most recent EU policy papers on India points at the importance given to upholding the international rules-based order, which is a definite consequence of these political changes.

Pieter-jan Dockx and Manuel Herrera are research staff at IPCS.