19th Oct 2021


Resetting Europe's India strategy

  • Europe should reach out to India to form a coalition that puts pressure on China and the US (Photo: derajfast)

As strategic partners, EU-India relations ought to be vibrant. Polyphonic and pluralistic, they are the world's most populous democracies and should be deepening their shared commitments to shaping a multipolar world.

Yet, the EU's India policy over the last decade has been less than inspiring. If the EU is serious about promoting effective multilateralism, its leaders must urgently address its underperforming partnership with India.

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The contrast with the US could not be starker. Last November, US President Barack Obama met with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to renew and deepen their strategic partnership; based not on symbolism, but substance.

India is also forming closer ties with rising powers including Brazil and Russia. The EU is even lagging behind China which, despite an ongoing border dispute, has sought strategic rapprochement with India.

Why is this? The EU has primarily viewed India through an economic prism. Indeed, India is at the forefront of a thriving South Asian economy with the EU as its most important trading partner with over 20 percent of India's total trade. But a one-dimensional economic prism prevents the EU from seeing India in broader political terms: as a key element of the emerging multipolar world.

Climate change

For sure, India does not always make this easy. Traditionally it anchored itself in the G77 camp and Non-Aligned Movement with an often obstructionist agenda that has counteracted Europe's interests at the UN. But India is gradually shedding its developing country-identity, and under Manmohan Singh's leadership, it is, in some areas, open to serious partnerships with both developed and developing countries. The EU should not miss this opportunity.

Take climate change: recent years have seen the climate debate between Europe and India stuck in the trenches. The EU is a self-styled international leader on climate change policy. With by far the lowest per capita emissions among all rising powers, India should be in Europe's boat with regards to global climate diplomacy, not China's.

India found itself sidelined in Copenhagen despite the fact that its low emissions afford it a lot of room for maneuver. Europe should reach out to India to form a coalition that puts pressure on China and the US for a deal at the next climate summit in Mexico - a deal from which India stands to gain.

Climate change is just one area where there is an obvious need for closer EU-India co-operation. Right now, however, the process lacks political momentum within the EU. Unlike Washington, Brussels is unable to speak in one voice on India. This is symptomatic of the chronic mutual under-prioritisation between India and the EU.

Strategic partnership

Fortunately, the new High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, has promised to change course by investing "a lot in strengthening partnerships with what we somewhat misleadingly call the 'new powers'."

It is time for EU leaders to put forward a coherent India agenda on which the union could produce broad consensus, including concrete steps on deepening co-operation on climate change and other global issues of mutual concern. India will have to do more to live up to its self-stated multilateral credentials and embrace its role as a rising power and joint stakeholder in global politics.

The EU must finally breathe life into this "strategic partnership." As Ashton put it: "Our mental map has to adjust - and fast." This can only work if the new EU president and foreign policy chief work hand-in-hand with the heads of the key EU governments.

Joel Sandhu is Research Associate and Oliver Stuenkel is Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin, an independent non-profit think tank focusing on effective and accountable governance


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


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