Wednesday

19th Feb 2020

Opinion

Is the EU-India strategic partnership really strategic?

  • After five years of stalled negotiations, free trade talks have finally begun to pick pace again (Photo: derajfast)

At a time of crisis, the EU seems to be interested in improving relations with emerging India. EU High Representative Chief Catherine Ashton recently wrapped up a 2-day visit to India, where she met with top Indian government officials as part of the EU-India strategic partnership. Trade and security, including antipiracy, cyber security and counter terrorism were the main issues on the agenda. But has the partnership been rendered more strategic?

Ashton’s visit came as a much-needed sign of political engagement to a relationship that struggles to find momentum. As the EU seeks to intensify consultations with India ahead of the EU-India summit (postponed to February 2012), at least things seem to be going in the right direction.

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After five years of stalled negotiations, free trade talks have finally begun to pick pace again. The 14th round of FTA talks was held in New Delhi just a few days preceding Ashton’s visit. It managed to iron out key issues. While cooperation at the technical level has advanced in recent times, divides persist given the limited political interactions and an inadequate understanding of each other. Other pending issues include tariff barriers, procurement, sustainability clauses and automobiles, among others.

While it is highly unlikely that the bilateral trade and investment pact will be concluded at the February summit, talks have been put in final gear thanks to the political impetus. Now what the EU and India need is a concrete roadmap for both trade and security cooperation and in particular, to advance with the FTA.

A free trade agreement is crucial for both partners. Not only will it ease economic difficulties and promote growth on both sides, but it also has the potential to send out an important message to the international community. Conversely, the FTA might herald a shift from the mired Doha agenda to bilateralism given the scope of the deal and the market size of the two giants. It thus becomes even more imperative for both global actors to increase efforts to advance the multilateral trading agenda as well. The upcoming summit provides an opportunity to achieve at least some sort of political agreement of sorts.

Catherine Ashton also discussed the EU-India summit agenda. In Bangalore, the High Representative co-chaired a ministerial meeting with the Indian Foreign Minister, with talks spanning from trade and investment, to immigration, energy, science and technology, counter-terrorism, and other regional and multilateral issues. This is another area where the EU errs. Instead of trying to cover (superficially) almost every single issue of the bilateral relationship, Ashton’s visit could have had maximum impact had it focussed on just a few priority dossiers of immediate significance.

While a strategic partnership must clearly allow for both partners to discuss a range of issues, contentious or not, the EU-India strategic partnership is different to that of the EU and the US. The transatlantic relationship has been traditionally close for historical reasons and comes with a high level of understanding. Meanwhile, the EU finds a rather compatible partner in the US when it comes to global and strategic affairs.

With India, despite commonalities, the EU needs to cultivate a greater synergy for it to become a real strategic partner. This requires an in-depth understanding of each other’s visions and roles in the new global order. Issues like Iran, where the EU and India have clear ideological differences, were discussed at length. India declared its intentions to continue importing crude oil from Iran, brushing aside US sanctions and the High Representative’s message that India had a responsibility to deliver the right message to Iran.

High-level visits are valuable for confidence-building, especially if such visits do not occur very often. This year will certainly see a renewal in the EU-India relationship, especially if the FTA is signed. While the European External Action Service has begun an internal review of its strategic partnership with India, India too sees a greater responsibility towards the Union.

Foreign Minister Krishna reiterated that Europe’s economic recovery and growth lay central to India’s interests. While the EU has made constructive advances regarding the strategic partnership, a positive response from India will undoubtedly pave the way for better relations. In this regard, greater visibility of Indian politicians in Brussels will be essential too.

The writer is researcher and head of the Agora Asia-Europe programme at thinktank FRIDE.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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