India and the EU: Tying up Loose Ends

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travels to Europe in early December for the 11th European Union-India summit, he should be hoping that relations between the two are nowhere as frigid as the winter in some parts of Europe. Although India and the EU share many common traits including strong and robust democracies, multiculturalism, a free press and judiciary, belief in secularism and human rights, they seem to have missed the bus when it comes to their overall ties.

In the years after India's independence, the EU and India had differing viewpoints on their respective roles in the world. India preferred to remain non-aligned, although its close ties with the erstwhile Soviet Union were not to the liking of many European nations. However, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, accompanied by India's economic reforms, ensured a gradual shift in the way the EU and India have perceived and dealt with each other.

While the ties hark back to the early 1960s, with India being one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the then-European Economic Community (EEC), it was a 1994 co-operation agreement between the EU and India which took the bilateral relations to a different level.

The Lisbon Summit in June 2000 marked the beginning of the EU-India Summits. A major landmark in the relations was the 2004 EU-India Summit in The Hague which endorsed the proposal to upgrade the EU-India relationship to the level of a "Strategic Partnership".

Common Interests

In 2005, a Joint Action Plan was launched at the Sixth EU-India Summit to implement the EU-India Strategic Partnership. This committed the EU and India to strengthening dialogue and consultation mechanisms, deepening political dialogue and co-operation in areas such as pluralism and diversity; democracy and human rights; peace-building and post-conflict assistance; nuclear non-proliferation; and the fight against terrorism and organised crime.

The EU Country Strategy Paper for India (2007-13) lists EU's priority areas in India. The first aim is to assist India in meeting the Millennium Development Goals by providing budget support to the social sector which includes areas like health, education, governance, decentralised decision-making and development, among others.

The second aim is to implement the EU-India Partnership with a view to supporting India's reform policies, promoting dialogue in areas of mutual interest and enhancing economic ties.

Terrorism is a common area of concern for both. The 2009 EU-India Summit reaffirmed the need for co-operation for combating the scourge of international terrorism. The EU is also India's largest trading partner. Trade levels have increased over the last few years. In 2008, the trade in goods and services between the EU and India was almost €80 billion.

Problem Areas

However, there are a few problem areas as well. First, Indian foreign policy has tended to traditionally concentrate on four large member states of the EU -- France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy. Indian policy makers need to make an extra effort to build up linkages with the new member countries.

Second, the EU has not spoken in one voice regarding India's aspiration for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. One of the reasons could be that Germany also covets a seat, which puts its interests at odds with that of India.

Third, with the US and the NATO forces already on the lookout for an exit strategy in Afghanistan, Indian officials are worried as to the grave implications it would have for security in the region, especially India's security, particularly because the idea of negotiating with the "good Taliban" put forward by the US and some of the European nations is a frightening prospect for India.

Fourth, India has also been upset by what it sees as "European interference" in India's internal matters such as human rights issues, Kashmir, child labor and the 2002 Gujarat communal riots.

Fifth, there have been differences on the issue of the signing of the long negotiated India-European Union Free Trade Agreement (FTA). These issues include public procurement and the list of sensitive items which are delaying the process and it is not unlikely to be signed during the Indian PM's visit to Europe in December this year.

The US visit

When President Barack Obama lands in India on NOv. 5, he is expected to reemphasise the importance of India in the American strategic matrix. His predecessor George Bush ended India's nuclear isolation and co-opted India as a partner in shaping a new world order, keeping in mind India's growing stature in the international arena. Just as the US has been willing to bend the rules with respect to India, the EU would do well to take into account the rise of India while framing its policies towards the country.

The EU can benefit from India's highly qualified technical manpower while India can benefit from technological assistance from the EU in niche areas including nuclear energy. In fact, a shift to nuclear energy would also help India to cut down on its emissions, something which the EU countries would like India to do.

Steps should also be taken for greater interaction between the academia, think-tanks, non-governmental organisations and the fourth estate in India and the EU, so that the ties between the two are not only dependent on official ties.

Both India and the EU need to put in the extra effort to see that the relations between the two reach their full potential. Given the immense potential of the relationship, the upcoming summit is an opportunity that both sides can ill afford to squander.

Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, Karnataka, India.