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As Europe concedes the “rise of Asia” as a major trend in global politics, it is imperative for the European Union (EU) to turn eastwards. Correspondingly, as India emerges in the international order, it needs to negotiate its rise with extant political and economic power centers like Brussels. Although India and the EU have engaged continually through the Annual India-EU Summits since 2000, its latest iteration on May 8, 2021—happening virtually because of the pandemic and amidst the devastating second wave of coronavirus in India—has an unprecedented global context. Pressing issues such as post-Brexit trade, health cooperation, post-pandemic recovery, China’s rise, the renewed emphasis on the Indo-Pacific as a strategic theater, and climate change exigencies will overwrite the existing agenda comprising political, economic, and developmental cooperation. Both Brussels and New Delhi have set out an ambitious “Roadmap to 2025” to enhance their partnership to a strategic one and instituted 31 bilateral dialogues to that end. With another India-EU Summit in the offing—the first ever where an Indian leader would participate along with all 27 European leaders, this article surveys the state of affairs and suggests that India and the EU should continue building their strategic convergence in the Indo-Pacific, minimize friction on outstanding political issues, and place additional emphasis on trade and climate change.

…this article surveys the state of affairs and suggests that India and the EU should continue building their strategic convergence in the Indo-Pacific, minimize friction on outstanding political issues, and place additional emphasis on trade and climate change.

Strategic convergence: Indo-Pacific

It took some time for the EU’s strategic community to accept the Indo-Pacific as a strategic concept and brewing political reality. Initially, only three western European countries—France, Germany, and the Netherlands—embraced the idea through their own versions of an Indo-Pacific Policy. Some believe the EU is not yet prepared for a collective Indo-Pacific policy given the differences between the western and eastern blocs on how to engage with China. Beijing continues to politically and economically engage the Euro-skeptic governments of Central and Eastern European Countries through sub-regional formats, which many consider a “wedge strategy” to subvert any cohesive geopolitical stance of the EU, possibly against China. Regardless of such efforts by Beijing, the Council of the European Union was recently able to approve a joint “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” with a focus on advancing the EU’s political, economic, defense, and connectivity interests in the region. Even before Brussels launched this formal policy, it instituted the “India-EU Maritime Dialogue,” hinting at seriousness on maritime security on both sides. The policy announcement means the EU is now on board on additional issues ranging from resilient supply chains to stable and secure cyberspace in Asia. However, in practice, the EU’s commitment may differ widely based on the Union’s ability to overcome internal contradictions between member states and mobilize corresponding resources.

For New Delhi, there is little to celebrate with the EU’s newfound commitment to the Indo-Pacific. First, the policy remains timid in embracing India compared to the U.S.’ “Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific,” which unequivocally professes that India’s “preferred partner on security issues is the United States” and that “India remains preeminent in South Asia and takes the leading role in maintaining Indian Ocean security.” Given Europe’s trade dependency on China, it seems that Brussels is not willing to upset the apple cart with Beijing. It seems that the EU is still not prepared for an unambiguous tilt towards New Delhi like Washington. The treaty does not denounce China as an adversary and Brussels has not given up its effort to ratify the EU-China investment treaty. Second, the EU’s resolve for a free and open Indo-Pacific would be particularly tested since Europe no longer boasts the naval supremacy of the past, with the exception of the French, German, and Italian navies. Of the three, France and Germany are already invested in the Indo-Pacific theater through their navigation forays into the South China Sea, joint military exercises with India or Japan, and other forms of defense cooperation, all of which are independent of the EU’s position. Still, it is a welcome move compared to no policy at all as the EU’s common Indo-Pacific orientation offers a huge political gravitas in the multilateral domain of rulemaking, if not rule-defending, in the high seas. Moreover, as India’s envoy to the EU recently hinted, both side’s geopolitical coziness would have a spillover effect in other areas such as trade.

Calibrating Focus: Diplomatic Tensions 

From time to time, the European Parliament has become a theater for rivalry between India and Pakistan. After New Delhi eliminated the autonomy of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, the European Parliament’s ensuing debate about India’s handling of the domestic situation, mostly partisan, tempered diplomatic warmth. A subsequent parliamentary resolution in Strasbourg on India’s revised citizenship law, although put off at the last minute, further embittered relations. New Delhi feels these are not objective debates as they are seen as a product of Islamabad’s outreach through Members of European Parliament of Pakistani origin.

On the other hand, Pakistan too blames India’s diplomacy for the showdown it faces in Brussels. For instance, Pakistan’s leadership was quick in blaming Indian efforts for the EU’s recently adopted motion to review trade ties over Pakistan’s blasphemy laws enabling persecution of minorities. These non-binding resolutions and one-upmanship games drain the diplomatic goodwill necessary to take forward the overall agenda. If New Delhi and Brussels are to strengthen their partnership, it is imperative to tap into areas of immediate cooperation, including trade and climate change, while the dialogue on mutually shared values and contentious political issues continues.

Immediate Cooperation: Trade and Climate Change

Trade remains the most significant agenda item for both sides and currently stands at USD $115.6 billion roughly balanced between them. The figure remains suboptimal due to bilateral tariff barriers and regulatory differences. With the departure of the UK from the EU, India’s exports to the EU will shrink by 16 percent this year. After India’s departure from the China-led RCEP and the European Union’s Brexit loss, both sides are trying to scout new markets to expand trade. India is on the EU’s Generalized Scheme of Preferences, which is likely to continue after the review in 2023. The suboptimal trade outcome between India and the EU is not merely limited to tariff barriers, but it also includes a host of policy and regulatory challenges as both sides frankly noted in their most recent ministerial interaction. Earlier attempts at drawing a long-winding and ambitious free trade agreement came to a standstill after 16 rounds of talks between 2007 and 2013 given both sides inability to eliminate barriers and adjust to mutual policy realities. The situation has grown complex since the new regulatory instruments such as GDPR that affects entire range of IT services. Given the wide chasm between policy and regulatory frameworks, it is advisable both sides commit to a long-term plan to incrementally expand market access through annual benchmarks or periodic ‘early harvest deals.’

As both the EU and India remain unwaveringly committed to the Paris Climate Agreement, attending to the issue of climate change is a natural point of convergence. A number of EU member states also individually support India’s flagship International Solar Alliance. At the 14th India-EU Summit in 2017, the European Investment Bank (EIB) extended around USD $965 million in financial support to the ISA. Even though both do not share the same understanding of climate mitigation responsibilities, it has not prevented the EU from cooperating with India. While EU states collectively lag behind India in meeting their professed climate goals, it can help expedite India’s journey by availing vital technology, such as efficient storage and mobility solutions for renewables, that are critical for a cleaner transition.

After decades of neglect, New Delhi and Brussels coming together to forge a robust partnership is a welcome move as there remains untapped potential for strategic convergence and shared prosperity.

Conclusion

After decades of neglect, New Delhi and Brussels coming together to forge a robust partnership is a welcome move as there remains untapped potential for strategic convergence and shared prosperity. Even though there would remain a considerable gap between the EU’s policy commitment to the Indo-Pacific and actual maritime efforts, India should appreciate and build upon the moral strength that the policy brings to multilateral efforts. As the large diaspora of South Asian origin remain politically active and relay regional conflicts to European capitals through their advocacy, the European Parliament will continue to be a theater of India-Pakistan rivalry. It is imprudent to allow political bickering to withhold bigger strides in actionable areas such as trade and climate change. Recent summits have advanced bilateral cause with concrete deliverables, with reports indicating likely first steps towards a broad digital and physical connectivity agreement. To realize the full potential, sustained engagement through annual dialogues at the highest level would prove vital.

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Image 1: MEAIndia via Twitter

Image 2: Ludovic Marin via Getty Images

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