In a new world, why old Europe matters
While Covid-19 has disrupted societies, it has also brought greater clarity for individuals and nations. The European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) are two political geographies that may be experiencing this and are certainly at an inflection point. In this context, foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s visit to Paris, Berlin and London gains salience. That he has chosen Europe for his first Covid-19-era visit outside the neighbourhood suggests that New Delhi has sensed the importance of this moment.
At a recent event, external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, articulated why his ministry continued to invest time and energy in the relationship with Europe. He explained Europe’s importance for India’s most important imperatives — be it technology and the digital domain or becoming a green economy. The region holds the promise of long-term capital, innovation, markets and best practices.
Europe’s economic obsession following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis saw it withdraw from key political theatres. The pandemic has brought it right back to the great churning in Asia and indeed to the Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific Strategies released by Germany and France and the India Strategy announced by EU are indications that the Old Continent is changing course. The UK has hinted that it is realigning its political positions. It is currently engaged in its most comprehensive integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policies since the Cold War.
Much has been written about the divisions within EU. Economic differences, migration policies and the China factor all have a real basis and have impacted EU. These may well remain points of friction among member-states. The UK’s exit has also had consequences. Paradoxically, the events of 2020 have exposed the limits of fissiparous tendencies in EU.
There is now a disturbing realisation that China is no friend, and it is not like Europe. It drives the same vehicles and uses the same phones, but is not driven by the same values and principles. There is no convergence in world views. The perverse, even vulgar, conduct of mask diplomacy and thereafter the Wolf Warrior doctrine has been deeply disturbing to European sensibilities. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s troublesome EU sojourn indicated a new European resolve to call out China, even as Beijing dug its heels in.
In the UK, too, the boundaries of Brexitism are being tested. On 5G and technology choices, the UK and major EU countries are aligning positions. Global Britain is navigating new seas, but its ethical and strategic compass is keeping it firmly in the Atlantic Order. The earlier assumption at 10 Downing Street that it was possible to do business with China without being affected by its muscular politics has fallen short. The bears and bulls at the London Stock Exchange have danced for the Dragon far too long. In 2021, as it hosts G-7 — with India as a likely guest — and COP-26, the UK will realise exactly how much it remains embedded in Europe.
Shringla will find in his French, German and British interlocutors a new realism on trade. Free trade deals are not the issue they once were. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has reduced tariff barriers and the pandemic has enhanced the appreciation for non-tariff barriers. Boutique trade deals, supply chains restructuring where feasible, and enhanced linkages in health and vaccine value chains will be the focus. There will be less pressure on, and more opportunities for, India.
Realising the Sustainable Development Goals; battling the climate crisis through green transitions; and building a digital economy must also be on the menu. Post-Covid-19, we must build back green and build back better. In the past four years, the Paris Agreement has rested on European and Indian shoulders. It is time for Europe and India to shape a new global green deal. This EU+1 initiative should be on Shringla’s agenda as he engages with Paris and Berlin.
In London, he must create the ground for a bold UK-India announcement at COP-26 with an emphasis on a financing a framework that can catalyse green growth. India co-founded the International Solar Alliance with France and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure with the UK. These are critical legacies to be nurtured, more so since the United States (US) will continue to go through an existential crisis, to some degree, irrespective of what happens in early-November.
Technology is another shared frontier. Even as Europe invested in Chinese manufacturing zones, data from its banks, insurance and financial firms found safe and efficient homes in India. Trust was the operative word. And this same word will define partnerships in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Digital partnerships between India and EU and concurrently India and the UK are inevitable and desirable. As they assess the extremes of the American and Chinese models, on technology norms, digital regulations and data privacy, India and various shades of Europeans will find their positions more aligned.
With the US expected to be preoccupied till the new administration settles in by early-summer 2021, New Delhi is doing well to engage with other major Western democracies that, like India, are contributors to stability in the international system. Coming shortly after Jaishankar’s visit to Japan for the Quad talks and bilateral meetings, the foreign secretary’s trip to the heart of Old Europe is an important follow-up.
Samir Saran is president, Observer Research Foundation
The views expressed are personal