28th May 2023


Can EU–India summit revive flagging partnership?

The strategic partnership between India and the European Union has stagnated over the years, producing few results in terms of strategic cooperation.

Last year, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi dropped Brussels from his itinerary and planned his trip to accommodate other important European partners, like Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

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  • There is a potential for maritime security cooperation between Europe and India, since both are interested in securing the Indian Ocean Region. (Photo: Michael Scalet)

Moreover, the EU–India partnership has been routinely held hostage by single issues, such as the detention of Italian marines by India or the negotiations on the EU–India Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

But all of this may change when Modi touches down in Brussels on 30 March to resume the EU–India summit – an “annual” meeting that has not taken place in four years. What is more, Modi’s administration has been working assiduously to strengthen foreign policy ties since he took office in May 2014.

The forthcoming EU–India summit is an opportunity to take advantage of these positive signs and to revitalise a partnership that is too critical to squander.

It is in the interest of both sides to remember the strategic and economic importance of their relationship.

To start, India has security interests in, and proximity to, Afghanistan and Pakistan, a highly volatile area torn by war and terrorism. This intersects significantly with Europe’s own security interests.

In addition, India’s growing influence in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has significant implications for Europe, since a major part of the continent’s trade passes through these sea lanes.

Biggest trading partner

India is the world’s fastest-growing economy, with more than €100 billion worth of trade in goods and services, and the EU is India’s biggest trading partner.

Europe has emerged as an important destination for Indian companies seeking to make cross-border investments and overseas acquisitions. With the Modi government’s “Make in India” campaign, foreign direct investment is set to increase in the manufacturing sector – a ripe opportunity for European companies.

It comes as no surprise, then, that high on the agenda for the EU–India summit will be the resumption of talks on the FTA.

After 16 gruelling rounds, the FTA negotiations were suspended in 2013. While the reopening of talks is a welcome development, it alone does not guarantee a deepening of the EU–India partnership.

There are several issues that hindered FTA negotiations in the past and have yet to be resolved. For instance, the EU has demanded that India lower its duties on cars as a condition for resuming FTA negotiations. But India’s industry body staunchly opposes the idea because it could hurt the government’s Make in India initiative.

Another potential hurdle to resuming negotiations is India’s long-standing concern regarding restrictions on the temporary movement of skilled professionals from India to the EU.

Fighting transnational terrorism

But the summit should not revolve solely around the trade talks. If their relationship is to live up to its strategic potential, India and the EU must move beyond seeing each other through an economic lens.

Instead, their dialogue should include a strong security dimension, not least because India is a critical player and potential anchor of stability in the AfPak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) region. During the summit, focusing on issues that are of importance to both the EU and India would lay the foundation for taking their strategic partnership to the next level.

Cooperation on fighting transnational terrorism needs to be a top priority at the summit, given that both actors are serious about international peace and stability. In fact, a recent report by the EU counter-terrorism coordinator (CTC) identified the issue of foreign fighters as a top priority.

Radicalisation within Pakistan, the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the crises in Iraq, Syria and Yemen are security threats that have an impact on both India and Europe. India is also grappling with the worsening situation in Jammu and Kashmir as well as left-wing extremism.

While these various threats may seem isolated from each other, the many sources of financing, radicalisation and networking could be shared by terrorist groups.

To start, cooperation and intelligence exchange between India’s intelligence agencies and Eurojust, Europol and the CTC need to become more systematic.

The EU and India could also work together on the deadlocked Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, a proposed United Nations treaty that seeks to criminalise all forms of international terrorism and deny terrorists access to financial support, arms and safe havens.

There is also potential for maritime security cooperation between Europe and India, since both are interested in securing the Indian Ocean Region. In the Indian Maritime Security Strategy released in 2015, India declared its aim of being a “net security provider” in the region.

Based on its own knowledge, the EU could offer strategies for multi-agency and sectoral coordination in the IOR. Therefore, given the EU’s experiences and India’s ambitions in the region, there is room for cooperation, not least in building multilateral forums for cooperation with other littoral states.

Climate and energy

Another area for cooperation is climate change, which constitutes a major non-traditional security threat for India. New Delhi seeks greater cooperation from its partners on this issue. While the EU is actively providing climate change adaptation programmes with aid funds, there is room for more cooperation in this field.

Helpfully, policy elites in India view the EU as a global leader on climate change. The forthcoming summit can focus on EU–India cooperation on renewable energy, keeping in mind the Indian government’s immense push to reduce dependence on coal at the moment.

Moreover, with the Indian energy market poised to grow in coming years, the EU could help India reach its renewable energy targets, through investments as well as technology transfers. Similarly, initiatives such as Clean Ganga, smart cities and solar farms have tremendous potential for cooperation between both sides.

While a focus on these areas leaves out issues that are important on the European side – India’s relationship with Russia, for example – the summit poses a unique opportunity for the two actors to kickstart long-term, proactive cooperation.

During the summit, the EU can go beyond its “trading partner” role in India, pushing the two sides to work on other issues of mutual interest. If the EU and India are serious about leading the world into effective multilateralism, they need to progress from the currently lacklustre cooperation, one built on a long and unrealised wish list.

If they fail to breathe new life into this relationship by the end of March, prospects for a meaningful strategic partnership could irrevocably flat-line.

Dr. Garima Mohan is a Research Associate and Joel Sandhu is a Project Manager at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin


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

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