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India-European Union boost strategic partnership as free trade talks flounder

Progress was made in bilateral cooperation in other fields — from foreign policy to counterterrorism and outer space

March 31, 2016 11:23 pm | Updated 11:23 pm IST

Brussels: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the President European Council, Donald Tusk and the President European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, at EU-INDIA Summit, in Brussels, Belgium  on Wednesday.PTI Photo(PTI3_31_2016_000020A)

Brussels: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the President European Council, Donald Tusk and the President European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, at EU-INDIA Summit, in Brussels, Belgium on Wednesday.PTI Photo(PTI3_31_2016_000020A)

The 13th India-EU Summit concluded in Brussels without a consensus on a bilateral free trade deal known as the BTIA (Broadbased Trade and Investment Agreement) even as progress was made in bilateral cooperation in other fields -- from foreign policy to outer space.

The talks, which ended late Wednesday, were a culmination of efforts to kick-start a relationship that has been flagging for at least four years. The very fact that they occurred made them significant.

While both the parties failed to set a date for the next round of trade talks, Tomasz Kozlowski, EU Ambassador to India, told The Hindu that the discussions on trade involved an expression of ambitions and degrees of flexibility from both sides. “[The] EU and India will continue discussions on a possible FTA at a high-level,” Mr. Kozlowski said.

India has been pushing for opening European markets for its services sector and the movement of people to deliver those services while the EU has been keen on reducing or abolishing tariffs in several sectors, including in the automobile and wine and spirits sectors. The Brussels meetings evidently did not see the closing of gaps between the two sides.

“Overall, the most important thing is that the Summit put our strategic partnership back on track,” Mr. Kozlowski said in response to a question on the single most important achievement. “We really needed a strong political push and an expression of strong political commitment from both sides to define the main directions of our relations and to decide what fields of cooperation are most interesting for both sides and the most promising.”

The fields of cooperation are many, and defined by the EU-India Agenda for Action-2020, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the presidents of the European Council and European Commission endorsed. The sectors of partnership range from foreign policy, counter terrorism and disarmament to transport and space. While at least six agenda documents and declarations were issued by the EU on their website, the extent to which they will be acted upon and not share the current fate of the BTIA, remains to be seen.

There was some promise of action that would be taken in areas such as water, climate and energy, with the adoption of joint declarations on the India-EU Water Partnership and a Clean Energy and Climate Partnership.

Government-to-government and business-to-business level meetings to exchange best practices in these areas, including deadlines for setting the work programmes in some instances, have been agreed. The cost of these programs will be borne by the parties that incur them. India is no longer eligible for development assistance from the EU. However, India will still have access to concessional loans from the European Investment Bank (EIB). India and the EIB signed the first tranche of a Euro 450-million-loan at the Summit towards the construction of a metro rail line planned in Lucknow.

The joint declarations and Agenda for Action suggest that the EU has specifically courted Mr. Modi on several of his pet projects including the ‘Clean India’ initiative and the ‘Ganga Rejuvenation Initiative,’ where the EU will help in developing a solution to clean up the river as well as developing legal and governance frameworks for managing the basin.

The two sides agreed to cooperate in countering violent extremism, disrupt recruitment of terrorists and prevent the free passage of foreign fighters in a joint declaration on counter terrorism, which also called for the early adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism in the UN. They have also agreed to explore the possibility of India and EUROPOL, the EU’s law enforcement agency, to share intelligence.

The Common Agenda on Migration and Mobility (CAMM), which was also adopted, is designed to control and organize migration – a pressing concern for the EU. Significantly for the EU, the Agenda for Action includes items on facilitating the return of irregular migrants and the possibility of exploring a ‘Readmission Agreement’ — returning visa over-stayers to their home countries.

The Agenda also includes the prevention of human trafficking and promoting international protection as priority areas. Points of special interest to India on the agenda are likely to be easier visa procedures for skilled workers, IT professionals, and business travellers. For now, the CAMM is a political declaration and not a legal agreement.

Regarding ‘sensitive issues’ that were to be discussed at the summit, both parties have officially expressed their confidence in the legal processes of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, where the case of the Italian marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, is currently being heard. The EU also expressed a swift solution, “through due process of law” in the case of MV Seaman Guard Ohio, where 14 Estonians and six Britons were arrested in 2013 and sentenced in India.

India, EU and human rights One of the ostensible reasons for stalled talks between the European Union (EU) and India had been the EU’s concern over human right violations in India. Several Members of the European Parliament (MEP) have, in the past, expressed concerns in this regard, Geoffrey van Orden, Tory MEP from the East of England told The Hindu .

A recent letter from Human Rights Watch, an international NGO, to the EU leadership brings up issues of NGO harassment and the overlooking of rights of marginal groups in development projects in India in the context of the India EU Summit. A joint statement from India and the EU yesterday reiterates the importance that both countries officially accord human rights and the rights of women. In response to a question on where the EU stood on human rights in India and holding talks, Mr. Kozlowski said: “Human rights are very high on the EU agenda and we have such interaction with India as well. We are not going to teach anybody. We are going to discuss issues, consult each other.”

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