Bloc, stock, and barrel

Against expectations: “PM Modi’s visit to Brussels did not achieve much of what it was supposed to.” Mr. Modi with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk at the EU-India Summit in Brussels.  

The > India-European Union relationship has fallen into a familiar lull. The question officials in New Delhi and Brussels are confronting is: how do you move this relationship forward?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Brussels in March did not achieve much of what it was supposed to — jump-starting the semi-comatose relationship which, it was hoped, would be anchored in a free trade deal. If the run-up to the visit saw a flurry of activity with various government officials jetting from New Delhi to Brussels, the weeks since have been marked by distance and aloofness between the two sides. Those close to the process had hoped that a specific date for trade talks, which were long overdue, would be set. The proximate causes for the talks being stalled for four years were the >Italian marines case and the temporary ban, in 2015, of 700 generic drugs from India. However, a fundamental lack of understanding and a deficit of knowledge regarding the potential gains from the relationship, on both sides, has made the dynamic less productive than it could be and more vulnerable than it ought to be.

Sriram Lakshman

This pause in the level of activity is, however, not necessarily a bad thing. If both sides were to utilise this time to introspect on the benefits of the relationship — monetary and non-monetary, trade and beyond, and also to understand each other better, and, especially in the EU’s case, to understand itself better — the next time they approach one another it is likely to be with greater pragmatism and with a more accurate sense of the potential value of the relationship.

Understanding the EU

In March this year, Geoffrey van Orden, a Member of the European Parliament and head of its India caucus, told The Hindu: “India doesn’t get the EU.” This was not supposed to be an indictment; he went on to explain that many countries do not get the EU. The problem is both philosophical and administrative. A supranational association of countries, which has jurisdiction and decision-making power over its member states in some areas (commercial and competition policy, for instance), joint jurisdiction with members in others (for example, foreign and security policy is coordinated by the EU but the actual framing and execution is left to its members) and no jurisdiction whatsoever in others, is confusing to its external partners.

François Godement, who heads the Asia and China programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, recently told a group of Indian journalists that the Indian and European administrations experience each other as organisationally confusing and lacking in cohesion: “There is something fascinating about when the Indian Union meets the European Union… on both sides there are complaints which are totally symmetrical: ‘This is not organised, there is no continuity, it’s very hard to understand where the decision process is [sic].’”

However, the problem runs deeper than the world not getting the EU: the EU does not fully get the EU. The >Eurozone crisis and more recently, >the migrant crisis, have strained intra-union relationships. The migrant crisis has also questioned the commitment member states have to the humanistic founding values of modern Europe as well as their ability to coordinate a process to meet their international protection obligations. These crises have tested the EU’s raisons d’être.

The Europe question is being asked explicitly in Britain, which will hold a referendum next month on whether or not to remain in the EU. The ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ campaigns have left little to the imagination in their attempts to garner support. Boris Johnson, London’s former Mayor, went as far as to liken the objectives of the EU to those of Adolf Hitler: the creation of a controlling super-state. The messages of the ‘Leave’ campaign have comprehensively showcased real and imaginary fears, some of which lurk across Europe — migrants taking jobs, a loss of sovereignty, scope creep in Brussels’s jurisdiction, the economy taking a beating, cultural subservience and so forth. While these centrifugal forces in Europe are unlikely to undo the union, it is only natural that they impact the relationship with India, especially when the latter is already on the ‘does not get the EU’ list.

Understanding India

A second factor that has impacted the pace of development of Indo-EU relations is the fact that the EU is grappling with how India functions: a recurring theme that has arisen in discussions with diplomats, officials and members of think tanks. The EU establishment is road-mapping the interaction between State and Central governments, how and where policy is formed and implemented. It is also learning from its member states that doing business directly with State governments in India is often the way forward. Consequently, the EU has been engaging India partly through partnerships with Indian States. >The Agenda for Action-2020, which emerged from the March 30 talks in Brussels and sets the strategic agenda between India and EU for the next five years, emphasises sub-national and business-to-business linkages.

Thirdly, India’s strong bilateral relationships with the parts, i.e. several EU member states, such as France, Germany and the U.K., have affected the relationship with the whole. In the case of the above three countries the partnership extends to support for India’s bid for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. These strong partnerships have meant that the India-EU relationship has a tinge of complacency and lack of ownership about it.

The outcome of the British referendum will mean one of two things — ‘more EU’ or ‘less EU’. Whether there are similar referendums in other countries, or an invigorated EU in case Britain votes to stay (other countries may hold referendums irrespective of the British outcome), we are looking at a medium-to-long-term process of the EU clarifying, to itself, what it is about and how it goes about its business. This will have far-reaching implications for intra-EU relationships as well as the EU’s external partnerships.

India’s bilateral relationships with individual EU countries are built on a deep and mutual understanding of aspirations and concerns as also a well developed understanding of the value (monetary and otherwise) of any given partnership. Without these elements in place, the India-EU relationship cannot have an optimal level of priority associated with it. Priority is reflected, in part, by the resources and perseverance accorded to the negotiations and agreements. Therefore, on India’s part, it can regroup and strategise by asking some genuine and open-ended questions: What is the value of this relationship? How far can this relationship extend beyond trade? The government can also use this pause to reflect on how it would like to leverage this partnership on the world stage where the EU may not be present as an ubiquitous functional entity just yet but where some or all members are present.

At a time when India is juggling its relationships with the United States, Russia and China, an India-EU dynamic could be an important element in the country’s multilateral approach to the world. Right now, however, we just do not know.

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 11:54:04 PM |

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