Even though the sun may have finally come out in Brussels, the headquarters of the 28-member European Union (EU), the current mood remains somewhat gloomy. There are several reasons for it: The euro crisis, unemployment, terror attacks, illegal immigration and the persisting crisis in Ukraine.
On the positive side, there is a new leadership in the EU institutions and it is laying the path for a social and economic revival of the grouping, and one of their “key focus countries” for it is India.
Senior EU leaders, however, feel that the India-EU relationship has “lost momentum” and the surefire way of re-igniting it would be to restart the stalled discussions on the Broad-based Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) that the two parties have been negotiating since 2007.
And they are pinning their hopes on “business-friendly” Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the fact that trade and investment are his top policy agenda.
“Modi is a man who wants to get things done. I think it is the word from the top that works in India. I think the word needs to come from the top,” Geoffrey Van Orden, chairman of the European parliament’s delegation for relations with India, told a group of visiting Indian journalists recently.
Orden and five other members of the European parliament will be in India this week to “reestablish relations with Lok Sabha members and minister of trade Nirmala Sitharaman”.
Other leaders and policy makers said that the EU was intensifying its efforts to reach out to India on the BTIA and that they were willing to be flexible in resolving the contentious issues. The last round of BTIA talks was held in 2013.
The last India-EU summit was held in 2012.
Speaking on the India-EU ties, Gulshan Sachdeva, professor, Centre for European Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, said, “There was lot of enthusiasm when they started work on the BTIA. But things went downhill since 2009 thanks to a deadlock in the trade negotiations, the euro crisis and policy paralysis during the UPA-II’s term.”
The EU was hoping that the push for the resumption of talks would come from Modi during an India-EU summit. The PM was to be in Brussels for the summit on April 14-15 but that plan has now been shelved although he is going to France and Germany in April.
“The BTIA has to be a win-win for both sides. Europe has development on their side. We have demography and so it has to be a two-way process,” Indian ambassador to the EU, Belgium and Luxembourg Manjeev Singh Puri said.
“The ball is in their court. We have been told that the EU team is busy with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US.”
Puri added that the Centre’s stand was made clear to the EU when Modi met the then European Council president Herman Van Rompuy in Brisbane in 2014 during the G20 summit. Modi had assured him that the BTIA would not suffer because of a lack of “political will” in India.
The BTIA is not the only irritant in the relationship. The Italian marines issue continues to bedevil the relationship; there is no unity among EU members on India’s bid for a permanent seat in the Security Council.
On Ukraine, India’s positions are more sympathetic to Russia than the EU as New Delhi feels Russia has some legitimate interests in Ukraine. The EU thinks that India can play an important role in finding a peaceful solution to the Ukraine crisis.
“India’s privileged relations with Russia and longstanding relationship with it should build the basis for promotion of a greater understanding (on the issue),” EU Ambassador Joao Cravinho said recently in New Delhi.
“On issues of immediate Indian security concerns related to China, South Asia, central Asia and Southeast Asia, India probably feels that the EU has a limited role to play,” explained Sachdeva.
There is also a perception in India that the EU has a somewhat sympathetic attitude towards Pakistan.
“Although India and EU both believe in a democratic, multicultural and multi-polar world, still there is a lack of convergence on specific foreign policy issues,” he added.
This lack of convergence is also evident in the way the India-EU Joint Action Plan (JAP) has moved: In the JAP, both agreed to start about 40 dialogues and consultation mechanisms in areas dealing with democracy, human rights, security, terrorism, regional cooperation, trade and investment, effective multilateralism, climate change, agriculture, space, education, culture, etc.
But apart from trade, energy, education, science and technology, progress is limited in most areas.
China, however, has used similar platforms much more seriously than India to counter EU criticism on issues like human rights and democracy, and also used dialogues to further its views on Africa, Latin America and Asia.
While there is lot of sense in the EU and India coming together, analysts feel that the relationship should not be held hostage to the summit or BTIA.
“It is important to resume trade negotiations and start talking on issues concerning global economic governance, development cooperation, Afghanistan, West Asia, Africa etc,” Sachdeva said.
Agrees Gauri Khandekar of FRIDE, a Spanish think-tank, “The FTA is unlikely in the next three years but it would be unwise to wait. The EU and India must explore other sectors such as aid in Africa. While India is a big player in aid, the EU has field knowledge in this continent. Second, the two could join forces against Islamic State.”
The writer was in Brussels on invitation from the European Union.