Reconsider relations with the European Union
October  13,  2012

The French election results (and the chaos in Greece, which has been plunged into a second election because no government could emerge from last month’s ballot) prompt some reconsideration of India’s relations with Europe.

The European Union (EU) is India’s second largest trading partner, with 68 billion euros of commerce in 2010, accounting for 20 per cent of India’s global trade. But Europe’s contribution to India’s overall global trade has been shrinking even while the Indian economy grows.

India has a number of affinities with Europe and with the European Union, not least since we, too, are an economic and political union of a number of linguistically, culturally and ethnically different states.

Both are unwieldy unions of just under thirty states, both are bureaucratic, both are coalition- ridden and both are slow to make decisions. But in practice these affinities have not translated into close political or strategic relations.

Features

Though India was one of the first countries (in 1963) to establish diplomatic relations with the European Economic Community (EEC), and the India-EU Strategic Partnership and Joint Action Plan of 2005 and 2008 offer a framework for dialogue and cooperation in the field of security, it will take time for the EU to develop a common strategic culture, which is essential for meaningful strategic cooperation between the EU and India.

The India-EU Joint Action Plan covers a wide range of fields for cooperation, including trade and commerce, security, and cultural and educational exchanges.

However, as the Canadian diplomat David Malone has observed, ‘these measures lead mainly to dialogue, commitments to further dialogue, and exploratory committees and working groups, rather than to significant policy measures or economic breakthroughs.’ Indians have an allergy to being lectured to, and one of the great failings in the EU-India partnership has been the tendency of Europe to preach to India on matters we consider ourselves quite competent to handle on our own. As a democracy for over six decades (somewhat longer than several member states of the EU), India sees human rights as a vital domestic issue. There is not a single human rights problem about India that has been exposed by Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch or any European institution, which has not been revealed first by Indian citizens, journalists and NGOs and handled within the democratic Indian political space. So for the EU to try to write in human rights provisions into a free trade agreement, as if they were automobile emissions standards, gets Indian backs up. Trade should not be held hostage to internal European politics about human rights declarations; the substance of human rights is far more important than the language or the form. On the substance, India and the EU are on the same side and have the same aspirations.

Once this irritant is overcome, the negotiations for an FTA, which has been long in its ‘final’ stages, should be concluded and should transform trade.

Of course there are structural impediments that will not disappear. Ironically given its human rights professions, the EU has long favoured China over India, and China is clearly the preferred investment destination: for every euro invested in India from the EU, 20 euros are invested in China. (This is partly India’s fault, in not creating a comparably congenial climate for foreign investment.) An EU ambassador to India, quoted by Malone, observed that ‘each has a tendency to look to the most powerful poles in international relations rather than towards each other, and each spends more time deploring the shortcomings of the other rather than building the foundations of future partnership’.

A major element in the equation is India’s well-advertised preference for bilateral arrangements with individual member states of the EU, over dealing with the collectivity. This is arguably necessary, given the lack of cohesion in European institutions on strategic questions. Since Maastricht in 1992, Europe has claimed to have a ‘common foreign policy’, but it is not a ‘single’ foreign policy. (If it were, EU member states would not need two of the five permanent seats on the UN Security Council, and be clamouring for a third.)

Potential

The case for India-EU cooperation could be strongly made, since the bulk of the problem areas in the world lie between India and Europe (or, as Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt once put it, between the Indus and the Nile).

To take two examples: more people have been killed in Europe by drugs coming in from Afghanistan than the total number killed in two decades of fighting in that country. India’s security interests in Afghanistan and its greater proximity to that country offer important intersections with Europe’s interests. India’s increasing salience in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean, and especially in the security of the Gulf, the source of much of Europe’s energy,
suggests another area of cooperation.

India-EU relations currently lack substance and strategic weight, despite the conclusion of a strategic partnership in 2004. The oxymoronic lack of European unity undermines the credibility of the collectivity; policy-makers in New Delhi will not be able to find many instances of the EU, rather than its individual member states, engaging with or standing up to the United States, Russia or China on any major issue. The ongoing eurozone crisis has also not served to enhance India’s confidence in Europe.

Limitations

The EU provides very little value added to India’s principal security challenges. In the immediate priority areas of strategic interest to India – our own neighbourhood, the Gulf region, the United States and China – the EU is almost irrelevant, and the story does not get better if one extends India’s areas of security interest to Central and Southeast Asia.

On the big global security issues – nuclear proliferation, civil conflict and terrorism – the problem is the same, while the EU has almost nothing to contribute to India’s search for energy security. Even in India’s quest to be part of the global decision-making architecture, including a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, it is not the EU but the existing European permanent members, the UK and France, which bring more value to the table for India. India certainly needs European cooperation in counter-terrorism and European remote surveillance technology, but it would obtain these from European nation states, not from the EU.

So New Delhi strengthens relationships with a number of individual European countries that it considers reliable partners, but fails to think of Europe collectively as one of the potential poles in the evolving multipolar world. New Delhi sees an affinity with London, Berlin or Paris that it cannot bring itself to imagine with Brussels or Strasbourg. The danger is that New Delhi will write Europe off as a charming but irrelevant continent, ideal for a summer holiday but not for serious business. The world would be poorer if the Old Continent and the rising new subcontinent did not build on their democracy and their common interests to offer a genuine alternative to the blandishments of the United States and China.

Source: India Today

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