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Stronger strategic ties elude India, EU

Pallavi Aiyar  |  Brussels 

Climate change to top India-EU summit agenda on Friday.

Polyphonic and pluralistic, as the world’s two most populous democracies, India and the European Union (EU) are beasts of similar temperament. Yet of all the countries that the EU has a strategic partnership with (there are six in total: the US, Canada, Japan, China, Russia and India), its relationship with India is by far the least developed.

Europe’s eyes remain for the main part firmly trained on China, the country with which it trades to the tune of a whopping ¤360 billion. While India’s potential as a future global player of weight is gradually coming to be recognised, EU officials have a litany of complaints when it comes to actually dealing with New Delhi.

One standard gripe is that India under-resources the EU. The Chinese embassy in Brussels is over 80-people strong, including academics and strategists deputed from universities. India’s embassy, on the other hand, is staffed by a dozen-odd officers.

“China has scores of people studying, analysing, and lobbying the EU. India seems to simply ignore it,” said one official.

Others say India has still to get its head around an entity that is based not on sovereignty but on the relinquishing of sovereignty. “The idea of the European Union is one where nation states give up some of their sovereignty to act in a new way in a new century. But for India, it is very difficult to understand this,” complained another official.

The finger-pointing is not all one way. The labyrinth of red tape and bureaucracy that the different institutions of the EU are afflicted by, the patronising attitude of the European Parliament — a body that is quick to censure India’s human rights record — and the ambiguity in the varying competences between Brussels and the EU’s member-states are common complaints on the Indian side.

For India, it is not obvious why it should, in fact, invest more time and resources on the EU. Unlike Beijing or Washington, Brussels is unable to speak with one voice on the issues that New Delhi cares about. From India’s desire for a permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations to support last year for the civilian nuclear energy deal with the US, the EU has been unable to formulate a united stance.

The EU’s lack of a cogent foreign or defence policy has hobbled its strategic importance to New Delhi. New Delhi’s role as the voice of the developing world, often in opposition to the goals of the EU, in multilateral fora like the WTO and UN climate change talks is frustrating to Brussels.

The 10th EU-India summit, to take place on Friday, must be understood in this context. It is the stated intention of these annual summits to give a fillip to the strategic partnership between the two sides. However, the agenda and expected results reveal the long road New Delhi and Brussels still need to travel to meet this goal.

Writ large on the summit agenda will be the issue of climate change as well as the imminent coming into effect of the Lisbon treaty — a set of proposed changes to the 27-member EU’s rule book.

“We will be seeking a clearer picture of where India stands on Copenhagen,” said James Moran, the European Commission’s director for Asia. “We don’t expect any revolutionary revelations but we do hope for some clarifications from the Indian Prime Minister as to the exact stance India will take at the UN talks.”

In its turn, the EU will also have some explaining to do after its leaders failed last week to agree on details of what Europe will contribute financially to offsetting the costs incurred by the developing world in fighting global warming.

“Of course, we will also have to explain what we can do, what we can’t do and what we still haven’t decided,” said Moran while adding that a “clearer Indian position will help the EU to come up with a stronger offer”.

With the Czech President finally caving in this week, the path for the ratification of the beleaguered Lisbon Treaty has been cleared. The Indian side is thus expected to ask questions about the impact the new institutional arrangements in Europe will have on bilateral ties. Under Lisbon, Europe will now acquire a full-time president, as well as a more empowered foreign minister.

But while plenty of clarification seeking will go on at the summit, big-ticket announcements will be sorely missing.

The free trade agreement (FTA), which if and when concluded, will be the clear jewel in the crown of bilateral ties, shows scant signs of progress. Recent announcements from European officials linking non-trade issues such as labour and environmental standards to the negotiations have not given much cause for optimism. In fact, with implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, the chances of a swift conclusion to FTA talks are even less likely since under the new arrangements the European Parliament — the European body most keen on linking trade deals to human rights issues — will have greater power.

Moran went on to reveal that several other deals that are currently being considered including a long-running bilateral maritime agreement as well as a joint project for research into nuclear fission could not be tied up in time for the summit.

In part, this outcome is a reflection of a year when both India and the EU have had other more pressing domestic priorities. For Brussels, the economic recession coupled with the tortured process of getting the Lisbon Treaty ratified has absorbed much energy, while in India, elections delayed progress on some items on the bilateral agenda. However, it is also more generally symptomatic of the chronic mutual underprioritisation between India and the EU.

The only concrete outcomes of the summit will be the signing of a cooperation agreement between Euratom (the European Atomic Energy Community) and India in the field of fusion energy research as well as the launch of a call for proposals for research in solar energy.

Friday’s summit will have its fair share of hoopla. But what it will ultimately reveal is the bald fact that despite sharing substantial points of common interest — including the evolution of a truly multipolar world and the opening up of two huge markets for their respective businesses — the idea of a stronger strategic partnership has failed to ignite the imaginations of either the governments or peoples of India and Europe.

First Published: Thu, November 05 2009. 00:35 IST