Thursday

23rd May 2019

Opinion

EU-India relations: from blind spot to strategic engagement

  • The 2008 EU-India summit: "Some Indians view the EU as a trade bloc and less as an emerging pole in a multipolar world" (Photo: European Community, 2008)

The dust from the recent terrorist attacks on India's financial capital, Mumbai, may have settled, but tensions are rising along the border between India and Pakistan.

With increasing troop movements, we are reminded that Kashmir remains the most volatile region in South Asia. While the United States and Great Britain - Washington's closest European ally - have urged the two sides to avoid unnecessarily raising tensions, the EU as a whole remain marginal in its engagement with India vis-a-vis the Mumbai attacks and subsequent developments.

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The EU's weak visibility and strategic disinterest involving one of Asia's rising powers could prove to be a fatal mistake. If the EU is serious about promoting effective multilateralism in an increasingly globalised world it should revisit and strengthen its relations with India.

In contrast to the US, which immediately deployed the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to ease tensions between India and Pakistan following the three day terrorist onslaught on Mumbai, the EU largely slept through this development. This lack of engagement reflects a broader pattern in EU foreign policy where India remains a strategic void.

Some Indians view the EU as a trade bloc and less as an emerging pole in a multipolar world. They argue that the EU has no consensus position on issues they care most about, like India's bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. In the past, the EU criticized India's human rights abuses over its forces' heavy handed response to peaceful protests in the Kashmir region, which vexed many Indians.

Officials in both Brussels and New Delhi grunt about each other. Those in New Delhi are irritated by the EU's patronizing approach and having to deal with both the EU's institutions and the member states simultaneously. EU officials complain their Indian counterparts are arrogant and under-resourced.

Beyond stereotypes

Like the US, the EU would do well to go beyond these stereotypes, switch gears and deepen its partnership with India. The EU-India summit at Marseilles in September 2008 highlights the perception problem between the two. The summit largely focused on trading information and trade volumes.

But trade does not make the EU and India best friends, or create a common vision or a common global ambition between them. Trade alone is not a barometer of common perceptions. The EU needs to move beyond the realm of trade and engage India on issues of deep strategic importance including security and political policies and seek to strengthen the foundations of a strategic partnership which could have long-term implications on priorities for the Union.

There are a number of obvious areas of common interest to deepen the relationship. The EU and India share a belief in the importance of maintaining international peace and security. Officials and policy makers in the EU ought to act in tandem in pursuit of their common interests with their Indian counterparts – most notably, a shared desire to fight the scourge of terrorism.

India is also one of the leading providers of UN peacekeeping forces and one of the major providers of assistance to Afghanistan where both the EU and India want to sustain Mohammad Karzai's government.

Brussels acknowledges that it has common interests but also faces common challenges along with New Delhi and the two parties are in the process of learning about each other. The EU-India Strategic Partnership and the Joint Action Plan are steps towards cooperation in crucial areas including: security challenges at the regional and global level; antiterrorism and intelligence sharing; conflict resolution initiatives; climate change; non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; democracy and human rights.

This strategic partnership ought to go beyond talks of markets and trade. However, the process clearly lacks political and bureaucratic momentum within the EU. Indeed, contrary to China or the Middle East for example, India is not remotely a priority issue for either the European Commission or EU member states.

Moving EU-India relations forward

Now, India is experiencing a transformation, shaking off anti-western attitudes and drifting away from the non-aligned movement. It is becoming increasingly aware of its growing status as a world power and the responsibilities that come with it.

A telling sign is India's responsible attitude towards nuclear non-proliferation and its continued support in UN peacekeeping missions. The Indian navy also stepped up its actions in the fight against piracy in the Indian Ocean, arresting and sinking Somali pirates and their ships. Most recently, India demonstrated patience and political maturity in not succumbing to the domestic calls for action against Pakistan following the Mumbai attacks.

It is high-time for the EU political leadership to take bigger steps in moving forward the EU-India Strategic Partnership which is a useful institutionalized mechanism for the European Union and India to discuss and exchange views on issues of shared importance. Beyond the UN, a deepened EU-India cooperation would also have far reaching impacts on the EU's goals in climate change by drawing India closer in the UNFCCC dialogues; trade negotiations in the WTO; and on nuclear non-proliferation related issues.

The prospects of increased cooperation between India and the European Union are indeed promising, but they are certainly not predetermined. The rise of India as one of Asia's powerhouses will have far reaching consequences for Europe. The European Union will not be in a position to pursue its interests in Asia alone but has to look for potential partners. The EU's present engagement with China needs be complemented by a coherent strategy for India.

The simultaneous rise of these two countries will also have an impact on global institutions. India is showing its willingness to play a more prominent role in international affairs. This is a precious chance for the EU to intensify its relations with India and bring it closer to existing global governance structures.

If the European Union is serious about its ambitions to lead the world into effective multilateralism it cannot afford to continue treating India like a void on the strategic map. Both parties attach great value to effective multilateralism, which will characterize the 21st century. If the EU cannot embrace one of Asia's rising powers and the world's largest liberal and secular democracy within this framework, then who?

The author is a researcher at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin (gppi.net), a non-profit think tank focusing on effective and accountable governance.

Disclaimer

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

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