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Monday, Nov 18, 2019

MEPs visit not a diplomatic disaster, writes Swapan Dasgupta

India’s bid to create a cluster of friends should be seen as no more than a public relations exercise

analysis Updated: Nov 06, 2019 20:25 IST
Swapan Dasgupta
Swapan Dasgupta
The sad truth is that the powers of the MEPs are woefully limited. It is the EU Commissioners that call the shots
The sad truth is that the powers of the MEPs are woefully limited. It is the EU Commissioners that call the shots(Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times)

The visit of an “unofficial” delegation of 23 Members of the European Parliament (MEP) to Delhi and Srinagar was accompanied by controversy. There were questions raised about the credibility of the outfit that had organised the visit, the political affiliations of the MEPs, the high-level access given to the visitors, and the diplomatic fallout of the visit. Apart from the predictable outrage in circles that share Pakistan’s perspectives on the developments in Kashmir, the controversy within India ran along predictable political lines — the Opposition called it a “diplomatic blunder” and pro-government circles defended it as an attempt to sensitise global opinion to the Indian position.

Now that the visit is over and the controversy relegated to the footnotes, it may be prudent to look at some of the larger questions thrown up by the visit.

The first centres on the role of MEPs in influencing decisions of the European Union (EU). Anyone familiar with the EU headquarters in Brussels would have gauged the awkward realities of decision-making of this powerful organisation. All the crucial decisions regarding international trade and the internal regulations governing member-states are taken by a bureaucracy that is not accountable to the elected MEPs. The bustle inside the grand European Parliament building may appear extremely purposeful, but the sad truth is that the powers of the MEPs are woefully limited. They have the ability to raise national and international issues, and even host meetings convened by well-meaning pressure groups. However, these amount to very little. It is the EU Commissioners that call the shots.

Strictly speaking, foreign policy does not come under the purview of the EU. The member-states formulate their own approaches, except in matters relating to international trade. However, the EU has always perceived itself as a force for the good and is inclined to take moral positions on issues such as human rights, armed conflicts and refugees. Its self-image is moulded by an astonishing sense of self-righteousness which is more often than not completely at odds with the hard-nosed pragmatism displayed by countries such as France and the United Kingdom. Moralising has also played a role in the creation of protectionist, non-trade barriers that are aimed at negating the competitive advantages of economies outside the EU. Indian exports to the EU have suffered on this count.

Consequently, the role of MEPs in influencing the positions of the EU is minimal. Like the Peers who grace the House of Lords in UK, MEPs are useful in publicising causes, raising awkward questions, decorating letterheads and embellishing public platforms, but not much more. India’s bid to create a cluster of friends among MEPs should be seen in this light—a necessary public relations exercise but little more.

This, in turn, leads to the political composition of the MEPs who visited Kashmir. That the majority belonged to parties with nationalist orientations, wary of the mass refugee influx into Europe is undeniable. However, the objections to them, particularly in the media, are misplaced.

First, as a sovereign country India should not have any official position on the internal politics of individual EU member-states. Just as the presence of United States President Donald Trump in the Howdy Modi event in Houston last month doesn’t imply an Indian position on the fractious internal politics of the US, the presence of nationalist MEPs should not be over-interpreted. At the same time, it is undeniable that these nationalist MEPs are more receptive to India’s concerns over Islamist terrorism than their more liberal-inclined counterparts.

Second, the politics of Europe, including the attitude of member-states to the EU, is deeply contested. What is glibly described as the far Right in the media happens to include the ruling parties in Poland and Hungary. They also include governments in the erstwhile Warsaw Pact countries that are sceptical of the EU’s overbearing sanctimoniousness. Both Hungary and Poland have been at the receiving end of attempts by the EU to influence national policies, particularly on immigration. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has, in fact, emerged as a hate figure in the liberal circles of Europe. As for the far Right in countries such as France, Germany and UK — marked by a commitment to national cultures and national sovereignty — neither India, nor Indians figure on their hate radar. Instead, India is often perceived as a bulwark against the type of terrorism European countries have experienced.

Viewed in the context of Europe, the attempt by India to influence a small slice of public opinion over Kashmir is neither a triumph, nor a grave diplomatic disaster. It is a modest initiative based on the recognition that Europe cannot be viewed as a homogeneous entity, and that it is not India’s business to be judgmental about its internal politics. India has to do business with both the champions of “one Europe” and nationalists, and with liberals and conservatives. Of course, there is a case for being more discerning about the NGOs it chooses to partner.

Swapan Dasgupta is Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha

The views expressed are personal