Deepen the partnership with the European Union, writes Shyam Saran
Brexit is over and done with. India will need to review its policy both towards Britain and the European Union (EU). Relations with Britain will need to be reframed with a narrower, more bilateral focus. For several years, Britain’s attraction was as a most convenient platform to do business in Europe. Britain had an outsized influence on EU’s policies towards India, claiming a familiarity with its former colony that other member countries lacked. These had started diminishing over the past decade. Now they will cease to do so.
Relations with Britain will lose some salience, and London will no longer be a critical capital in Indian calculations. It will retain its attraction as one of the most important global financial markets and as a centre of technological innovation and knowledge. It will be an opinion leader in the Anglo-Saxon world. These point to a recalibrated but nevertheless strong relationship which India should seek with London. There is an interest in Britain to conclude an early trade deal with India, but a more protectionist and “swadeshi” minded India may be a reluctant bride. The British press has been increasingly critical of recent political developments in India. There have been more gentle proddings at the official level, too. This may cast a shadow over relations.
EU, without Britain, would be weaker in some ways but could also gain in coherence. As an EU member, Britain provided its strongest link with the United States (US) and resisted more independent European initiatives such as in defence and foreign relations. With Britain gone and the US under Trump dismissive of the EU and of NATO, it is likely that Europe will begin to look at a more cohesive and relatively independent international role. This is coming at an interesting juncture. The phase of Europe’s intense engagement with China is giving way to a perception of strategic competition. There is anxiety over China’s predatory investment in European strategic assets such as ports and logistic hubs. China has been courting a group of former central and east European and southern European countries under the 17+1 forum. Several of these countries are EU members. This is a matter of concern.
This provides an opportunity for India to revive its strategic partnership with EU which was announced in 2004 but fell short of expectations due to two main factors — one, the EU priority to relations with China, which was seen as a bigger economic opportunity than India; and two, Europe’s inward turn in the aftermath of the global financial and economic crisis of 2008. There is today a more congenial environment to revive the partnership, and both sides need to grasp this opportunity during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Brussels later this month.
India and the EU were close to concluding a trade and investment agreement subsequent to the announcement of the strategic partnership. However, this did not happen mainly because technicalities overwhelmed the political drivers of the relationship. The gap between the two sides has become bigger over the past decade-and-a-half. Negotiations on the proposed agreement must be resumed with a clear political direction from leaders on both sides to conclude a pact speedily. If the economic pillar of the relationship is weak, then the strategic partnership cannot be sustained. Both sides will need to shed the growing protectionist tendencies in their countries. India and the EU also have a convergent interest in a multilateral rule-based international trade and investment regime embedded in a reformed World Trade Organisation (WTO). The same is true in other domains such as the climate crisis, cyber security, peaceful uses of space, international terrorism and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. There is every reason for the two sides to engage in a broad-based dialogue to promote a multilateralism and rules-based regimes.
In 2004, there was a strong affinity which brought India and the EU together in a strategic partnership. Both were multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-cultural plural democracies. Each side had a stake in the success of the other. Since then, we have seen migration becoming a major issue in Europe and there is the increasing influence of ultra-nationalist and right wing parties which question Europe’s multi-culturalism. In India, too, we are witnessing a struggle between a vision of India as a secular republic encompassing a vast diversity and a narrower, more exclusive, identity. There is a danger that both sides may settle for a transactional relationship, downplaying shared values and affinities. Criticism of Indian policies in European civil society, parliament and media may put Indian diplomacy on a defensive mode and prevent a confident leveraging of the substantial and mutual opportunities which are emerging in a changing global landscape.
India has always supported and even cheered European unity because this would enable the EU to emerge as an independent pole in a multilateral order. This role has become even more important today and a strong India-EU partnership can help shape a more balanced, more democratic and peaceful international order with stronger multilateral institutions and multilateral processes to tackle global challenges. This is a relationship which has compelling logic.
Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and a senior fellow, CPR
The views expressed are personal