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Home / Books / Review: India & the EU; An Insider’s View by Bhaswati Mukherjee

Review: India & the EU; An Insider’s View by Bhaswati Mukherjee

India & EU: An Insider’s View is the first authoritative account of India’s relations with the European Union written from an Indian perspective by an Indian expert on the subject

books Updated: Jan 04, 2019, 20:47 IST
Maharajakrishna Rasgotra
Maharajakrishna Rasgotra
Hindustan Times
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Donald Tusk (L), president of the European Council, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker prior to a meeting as the 14th EU-India Summit takes place in New Delhi on October 6, 2017
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Donald Tusk (L), president of the European Council, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker prior to a meeting as the 14th EU-India Summit takes place in New Delhi on October 6, 2017(PRAKASH SINGH/AFP)
358pp, Rs 746; ICWA/Vij Books
358pp, Rs 746; ICWA/Vij Books

Bhaswati Mukherjee’s book, India & EU: An Insider’s View, is the first authoritative account of India’s relations with the European Union written from an Indian perspective, by an Indian expert on the subject. During her career in the Indian Foreign Service, Mukherjee spent 12 years in European posts, which gave her ample opportunity to observe the EU’s evolution. Then, for six critical years in India-EU relations, she was in a senior position in the MEA, responsible for their management. Her book, therefore, is a truly authoritative account of the ups and downs in these relations marked by many difficulties and unresolved critical issues.

The process of Europe’s unification began with the establishment of the Franco-German Coal and Steel High Authority in 1950 as a measure to avoid future wars in Europe. When this new entity evolved into a six or seven-member body called the European Economic Community (EEC), with headquarters at Brussels, Jawaharlal Nehru’s government established diplomatic relations with it in early 1962. In 1973, a cooperation agreement between India and the EEC established a Mixed Commission tasked to identify commercial sectors “of privileged cooperation”. In 1981, this agreement was replaced by another with broadened scope of India-EU economic cooperation. Though exchanges with Brussels increased and the relationship was christened “Strategic Partnership”, its performance has remained far below potential, the 14 annual India-EU Summits since June 2000 notwithstanding.

Mukherjee says this is due to the much higher priority Brussels bureaucrats attach to economic partnership with China. In comparison, they are insensitive and patronizing towards India. They seem contemptuous of mass poverty in India and are over-critical of our handling of issues like human rights, caste discrimination, child labour, Kashmir and our rising defence expenditure. These supercilious incantations ignore the rapidly changing Asian security scenario, are resented in India, and come in the way of reaching a consensus on areas of mutually beneficial cooperation.

The summits have their own story of frustrations and failure. Some gains recorded in the first two summits in Lisbon and New Delhi were squandered in the third summit at Copenhagen where the Danish Presidency’s sole objective was to censure India for its alleged human rights violations, nuclear tests and military expenditure. Prime Minister Rasmussen also wanted a separate dialogue on caste discrimination and child labour etc in India. The result was a complete fiasco and a setback to India-EU relations.

The fourth summit in New Delhi was an even worse mess because the Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi, who held the EU Presidency, refused to come to Delhi and insisted that a junior Deputy Minister in his government, Margherita Boniver, would be Prime Minister Vajpayee’s counterpart at the summit. Vajpayee’s sangfroid and the timely interventions of EU’s senior political figures saved the situation from deteriorating into a catastrophy.

This unseemly and off-handed approach of Brussel’s bureaucrats led to the premature winding up, in 2009, of a worthwhile joint initiative for the establishment of the India-EU Civil Society Round Table mandated to promote civil society exchanges between India and the European Union. There has been no evidence of intent on Brussels’ part to impart meaning and content to the Strategic Partnership. The saving grace of the situation lies in the fact that major European countries like Germany and France have thriving political, commercial and defence-related cooperation with India. India’s annual summits with Berlin and Paris are a far greater success and completely overshadow the EU-India summits.

An important negotiation for a Broad-based Trade and Investment Agreement (IBTIA) launched in 2007 has been languishing without any sign of progress. In this case, perhaps, India made the mistake of agreeing to negotiate a deal of a huge scope, including trade in goods and services (especially IT Services) and investments involving improved market access and non-discriminatory treatment to foreign investors. All that was really needed at this stage is a simple free trade agreement with Brussels. Apart from fundamental differences of approach of the two sides in negotiations, what has led to the present stalemate is the EU’s utter disregard of the vast difference in the levels of development of the markets and economies of India and Europe. Also, Brussels has insisted throughout these talks that all major concessions must come from India. Perhaps it would be best to find a way of leaving these negotiations in suspense till the Indian economy grows in size to US$5 or 7 trillion and EU is persuaded of its own need to access the Indian market.

Author Bhaswati Mukherjee
Author Bhaswati Mukherjee ( Courtesy the author )

United Europe is still very much a work in progress: the integration of 28 member states in a cohesive union with a comprehensive vision of Europe’s collective foreign and security policies and of its world role based on consensus among EU members is bound to take time – a couple of decades, I think, would be an optimistic estimate. Members are not willing to cede sovereignty to Brussels in these and even some socio-economic domains.

Meanwhile, deep fissures have surfaced among EU’s members. Poland and Romania, for example, have refused to cede sovereignty to Brussels virtually in all areas of common interest. There is some talk of Greece wanting to leave EU (Grecexit). Britain’s exit (Brexit) is now, of course, a certainty. While Brexit is a big tragedy for the EU, it is also likely to have dire consequences for UK’s politics and its economic and political standing in the world. The terms of exit from Europe negotiated by Prime Minister May are not popular in Britain but there is no chance at all of London getting an improved deal. The prevailing public confusion in the UK could lead to another referendum on the issue in the coming weeks, which is now expected to repeat the ‘Exit’ result of the earlier referendum. The possibility of Brexit, in March 2019, without a deal cannot be ruled out altogether and that may prove even more disastrous for the country’s economy and politics and even its territorial integrity.

Read more: Opinion | What does the next 25 years hold for the EU

Bhaswati Mukherjee’s book is an outstanding work on the important subject of India-EU relations. She has some worry about “high stakes” for India in Brexit. The remarks of an Indian businessman should allay that. The other day he said, “If Brexit happens, we will trade with Europe; and we will trade with the UK”.

Maharajakrishna Rasgotra is a former Foreign Secretary. He was India’s High Commissioner to the UK and ambassador to the Netherlands and France.

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