India has a number of affinities with Europe and with the European Union (EU), not least since it is also an economic and political union of a number of linguistically, culturally and ethnically different states. Both are unwieldy unions of just under 30 states, both are bureaucratic, both are coalition-ridden and both are slow to make decisions. But in practice, these affinities have not translated into close political or strategic relations.
India has had a long history of relations with the Old Continent, going back to the days of the Roman Empire. After centuries of languishing, trade is once more a major determinant of the relationship. The EU is India’s second largest trading partner, with €68 billion of commerce in 2010, accounting for 20% of India’s global trade, in addition to services exports from Europe worth €10 billion, and services imports valued at a little over €8 billion. But Europe’s contribution to India’s overall global trade has been shrinking: the percentage of India’s total trade made up by imports from and exports to EU member states has been, in fact, decreasing even while the Indian economy grows. Negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement are being held up over a number of issues, from India’s resistance to reduced tariffs for automobile imports to European-dictated provisions on climate change and human rights, which have fallen afoul of India’s allergy to being lectured to.
The case for India-EU cooperation could be strongly made, since the bulk of the problem areas in the world lie between India and Europe — or, as Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt once put it, between the Indus and the Nile. India’s security interests in Afghanistan and its greater proximity to that country offer important intersections with Europe’s interests. India’s increasing salience in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean, and especially in the security of the Gulf, the source of much of Europe’s energy, suggests another area of cooperation.
Yet, the prospects for institutional cooperation between India and the EU — despite all that they have in common, the long history of contact between the Old Continent and the subcontinent, and the contemporary relevance of the challenges and opportunities they confront — remain negligible. India-EU relations currently lack substance and strategic weight, despite the conclusion of a strategic partnership in 2004. It will take time for the EU to develop a common strategic culture, which is essential for meaningful strategic cooperation between the EU and India. The India-EU Joint Action Plan covers a wide range of fields for cooperation, including trade and commerce, security, and cultural and educational exchanges. However, as David Malone has observed, ‘these measures lead mainly to dialogue, commitments to further dialogue, and exploratory committees and working groups, rather than to significant policy measures or economic breakthroughs.’
The oxymoronic lack of European unity undermines the credibility of the collectivity. Since the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, Europe has claimed to have a ‘common foreign policy’, but it is not a ‘single’ foreign policy. (If it were, EU member states would not need two of the five permanent seats on the UN Security Council, and be clamouring for a third.)
India, therefore, prefers bilateral arrangements with individual member states of the EU over dealing with the collectivity. New Delhi sees an affinity with London, Berlin or Paris that it cannot bring itself to imagine with Brussels or Strasbourg. It does not help that India also considers Europe with its multiplicity of complex organisations to be over-institutionalised and over-bureaucratised and, therefore, far more complicated and less attractive to engage with than national capitals.
It could also be argued that the EU provides little value to India’s principal security challenges. In the immediate priority areas of strategic interest to India — its own neighbourhood, the Gulf region, the US and China — the EU is almost irrelevant, and the story does not get better if one extends India’s areas of security interest to Central and Southeast Asia. On the big global security issues — nuclear proliferation, civil conflict and terrorism — the problem is the same, while the EU has almost nothing to contribute to India’s search for energy security. Even in India’s quest to be part of the global decision-making architecture, including a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, it is not the EU but the existing European permanent members, Britain and France, which bring more value to the table for India. India certainly needs European cooperation in counter-terrorism and European remote surveillance technology, but it would obtain these from European nation states — the Indo-French Working Group on Terrorism has met every year since 2001 — and not from the EU.
There certainly is, nonetheless, scope in the fields of food security, the response to climate change and the protection of the environment, where Europe could share with India its advances in ‘green technology’. In the sphere of science and technology, India’s participation in both the International Thermonuclear Reactor Project (ITER) and the Galileo satellite programmes came through the EU. There is also room for enhanced technological cooperation, where India’s abundant and inexpensive scientifically savvy brainpower and its burgeoning record in ‘frugal innovation’ offer interesting synergies with Europe’s unmatched engineering traditions and capacity.
Despite strong and uncontentious relations with individual European countries, the danger remains that New Delhi will write Europe off as a charming but irrelevant continent, ideal for a summer holiday but not for serious business. The world would be poorer if the Old Continent and the rising new subcontinent did not build on their democracy and their common interests to offer a genuine alternative to the blandishments of the US and China.
Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram. The views expressed by the author are personal.