How India can maximise the potential from France’s EU presidency
The study has been authored by Share Malhotra, Foreign Affairs Analyst
As France takes over the EU presidency, both India and France can further enhance collaborations on multiple fronts
It’s not every year that France—India’s primary ally in the European Union—holds the presidency of the Council of the EU. In fact, the last time France took over the mantle of the Council, which brings together relevant sector-wise ministers of all EU member-states, was in 2008. This year, France took over the six month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU on January 1, with an aspiring agenda involving regulation of digital giants, minimum wages in Europe, Schengen reform, and enhancing European defence and security complementary to NATO.
For Europeans, the French presidency comes at a critical juncture in international politics—in the midst of the third wave of Covid-19 and US-China strategic power play, with Russian troops at the Ukraine border and an unfolding energy crisis, alongside the end of the Merkel era and the EU’s newly ambitious “Geopolitical Commission”. The presidency is a pivotal opportunity for France to determine the EU agenda, influence its decisions, find compromise with the remaining 26 member states and liaise between the Council and other EU institutions.
For India, the French presidency could not have come at a more opportune time. Ties between the two nations are on a steady upward swing, with French defence minister Florence Parly rather poetically likening relations to a “lessening of the distance between the Ganges and the Seine”. Besides, France is already India’s partner of choice on several fronts including indigenous defence manufacturing, security matters, and climate change; the International Solar Alliance, spearheaded by India and France, continues to attract more countries; and despite the pandemic, trade stood at US $8.85 billion in 2021. One needs to only look at the record number of times French presidents have been chief guests at India’s Republic Day Parade—five times and more than any other country’s leaders—to recognise France’s continuous importance to India over the years.
In more recent years, in tandem with the India-France partnership, the previously rocky EU-India partnership is also at an all-time high. May 2021 saw the EU-India summit take place in a unique format, previously extended only to the United States, with all 27 European heads of state and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
With Britain’s exit, France, alongside Germany, holds maximum weight and influence in the Union. However, in terms of strategic thought, France has long been an ideological pioneer in Europe. In fact, the idea of strategic autonomy, that currently underpins the new “geopolitical” EU, was first introduced in Paris. France was also the first European country to articulate a vision for the Indo-Pacific, as early as 2018, long before the concept started trending, and is the only European ministry with an ambassadorial role for the Indo-Pacific. The French vision, along with Germany and the Netherlands promoted debates on the subject at EU level, culminating in the EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in September 2021, which will be formally adopted during the French presidency.
France considers itself a “resident power” given how it still owns territories in the region, and its partnership with India is “a major pillar” of its engagement there, based on convergences on principles of inclusivity, sovereignty, transparency, and freedom of navigation.
Unsurprisingly then, the Indo-Pacific region—the new strategic centre of gravity—is a key focus for the French presidency. The Indo-Pacific has become central to European foreign policy, given how the majority of the EU’s exports and energy resources transit through the sea lanes in this region, and the subsequently belated realisation that developments there will directly impact Europe and its interests. France considers itself a “resident power” given how it still owns territories in the region, and its partnership with India is “a major pillar” of its engagement there, based on convergences on principles of inclusivity, sovereignty, transparency, and freedom of navigation. At its upcoming ministerial forum on the Indo-Pacific—the first such event during any EU Council Presidency—on February 22 in Paris, France has invited external affairs minister Jaishankar, along with foreign ministers of other partner countries, as part of efforts to maintain an Indo-Pacific governed by the rule of law.
As mentioned above, the EU released its Indo-Pacific strategy in September 2021, in the backdrop of increased Chinese aggression against both India and Europe since the beginning of the pandemic. With European perceptions of China evolving alongside a re-assessment of Chinese intentions, the strategy outlines a “multifaceted” and “inclusive” approach to China, encouraging it to play a peaceful role in the region, yet “pushing back where fundamental disagreements exist”.
On the other hand, it refers to India amongst its “like-minded” partners, clearly recognising India’s significance in the region. It also talks about potential cooperation with Quad on common areas like vaccines, climate change, and emerging technologies. Indeed, as part of the EU’s ‘Global Gateway’ infrastructure initiative that attempts to provide an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, India and Japan are the first two partner countries to sign a connectivity pact with the EU. The AUKUS scandal—the trilateral Australia-UK-US security partnership to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia while scuttling Australia’s submarine deal with France—has also likely emboldened French cooperation with India, even though the France-India-Australia trilateral in the Indian Ocean region has been its casualty (A point to note here is how PM Modi was the first leader that President Macron called after the rift). The recently adopted pacts on AI and 5G during the 2021 EU-India summit as new digital partnerships show overlapping areas of cooperation between EU cooperation with India and EU strategy on the Indo-Pacific.
The EU strategy, influenced more by the German vision, gives greater primacy to economic considerations based on Germany’s role as Europe’s economic powerhouse, its overall reticence towards matters of hard security and its softer Merkel-era attitude towards China.
But despite common EU strategy, divergences persist between European member states on priority areas. The EU strategy, influenced more by the German vision, gives greater primacy to economic considerations based on Germany’s role as Europe’s economic powerhouse, its overall reticence towards matters of hard security and its softer Merkel-era attitude towards China. France, on the other hand, wishes for greater engagement in the Indian Ocean region and on security issues, thereby aligning its priorities for the region more with India’s. While the German strategy finds barely any mention of the US, India and France both envision a strong role for the US in the region. But contrary to the US whose Indo-Pacific strategy is in opposition to increasing Chinese presence, India has been cautious in openly antagonising China, preferring instead to adopt an inclusive and non-confrontational approach somewhat similar to Europe.
Of course, the EU can never be India’s military partner of choice given its obvious limitations in that domain; however, in areas of technology and economics where its competencies lie, Brussels is extremely well-positioned to exert influence and pressure. Together, India and Europe can pursue their common goals of economic diversification and strengthening partnerships to address the China challenge.
Even though domestic and European matters including the pandemic, the looming French general election, and the urgent Ukraine situation would likely divert a large chunk of Macron’s attention, India’s strong bilateral relations with France can be a fundamental anchor in shoring up the Brussels-India dynamic during its presidency. That strong bilateral cooperation could serve as the basis for collaboration at the Brussels level and within the EU framework, was, in fact, recently reiterated by Indian and French foreign ministers Jaishankar and Le Drian at a virtual event. Also, as scholar Garima Mohan from the German Marshall Fund once mentioned, the large numbers of French folk posted in Brussels and leading important portfolios there have been instrumental in enhancing the EU-India partnership. Thus, it is evident that the French vision often trickles upwards at the EU level.
A similar concept, championed by France, currently resonates in Europe as the only credible “path for defending our interests and values around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific”.
Another advantage here is India’s acute understanding of Europe’s current emphasis on strategic autonomy—something India has been practising in its own foreign policy decision-making since the early days post-Independence. For India, strategic autonomy was a way to distance itself from US-Soviet strategic competition and expand its options during the Cold War. A similar concept, championed by France, currently resonates in Europe as the only credible “path for defending our interests and values around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific”. This is the strategic basis underpinning Macron’s creation of a European Army, peddled since his 2017 election campaign and reinforced by the AUKUS spat, to lessen dependence on NATO and the US. Thus, US-China rivalry is allowing middle powers such as India and Europe to fill the strategic vacuum left behind and seek greater engagement with each other.
India must capitalise on the timing of France’s presidency and the strength of its relationship with France to push through its goals at the EU level, by fostering cooperation on areas of mutual interest such as security, sustainability, and connectivity in the Indo-Pacific, enhancing domestic resilience, negotiations on the famously stuck-in-limbo EU-India Free Trade Agreement, digital regulation, the Afghanistan situation, climate change, and reviving multilateralism. As a starting point, India has already pushed France to advocate for an EU ban on weapon sales to Pakistan during its presidency. It would be in India’s national interest if in the post-Merkel era, Macron could use his increased leverage at the EU level to manage a greater Franco-German security alignment in line with his French vision, which also largely aligns with the Indian vision.
The piece was first published on ORF Online
(The study has been authored by Share Malhotra, Foreign Affairs Analyst)