‘No other country that can cope with China’: German envoy on India-EU trade pact
German ambassador Philipp Ackermann said Germany really wants the India-EU free trade pact and “it will change our business behaviour in India dramatically”
NEW DELHI: The clash between Indian and Chinese troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Arunachal Pradesh is a cause of concern and there should be no violation of international borders, German ambassador Philipp Ackermann said in an interview. Ackermann also underlined that India and Germany have agreed to stay in close contact at the top level on the issue of China and Russia following German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock’s visit to India last week. Edited excerpts:
On the back of the visit of foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, what are the priorities for the India-Germany relationship for 2023?
I think we are looking back to a very successful visit of the foreign minister. As you know, she had an in-depth meeting with external affairs minister S Jaishankar, and a couple of other very interesting meetings. The heart of the visit was the discussion with the foreign minister. Three very important areas were identified as priorities.
First is what we call the partnership for green and sustainable development. Everything that Germany does in India on cooperation is linked to climate change, environment, bio-diversity [and] smart city sustainability. That’s something which is very high on our agenda and it is also on the Indian agenda. There was complete agreement on cooperation on these matters in future. The German portfolio for India is about €1.5 billion a year over the next 10 years. That’s quite a large contribution and what we do with it is really exemplary in a remarkable way.
Then there is a strategic geopolitical priority, that is China and Russia. I think both ministers agreed to keep in close contact at the top level on these two areas, where I think in our analysis, when it comes to China, we are listening very carefully to what India has to say. We feel that India has a lot to say on China and I think there is a lot of overlap in our analysis. Then they had a very fruitful discussion on the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. So that’s also a priority.
The third priority is the G20 presidency. We are ready to help wherever we can to make this presidency a success. I think the Indian side has proven so far to be very much on top of everything. I think it’s a very well organised, oiled machine that will push the G20 forward.
Has Germany identified projects it is going to support by next year under the green partnership?
Yes, we have a series of projects. It’s not very easy to explain because these projects cover a couple of years. It’s not something that is done in 12 months but I’ll give you a couple of examples. We work with local energy providers in Rajasthan, where we help them transform from fossils to renewables. When it comes to smart cities, there is a solar driven water transport project which we are now completing. Basically, it’s ready and the boats can, at any stage now, start transporting passengers. Also, we have biodiversity projects and organic farming projects in the northeastern states that are very important. For us, it’s very important to be across the country, not only in special regions, but where we feel projects are useful. If we have a counterpart that is really willing to do something, to change something, then we go for it. We have a very broad range of projects under this umbrella of green and sustainability.
You mentioned the G20 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There is now greater understanding of the Indian position among European partners. How much do you think the Ukraine crisis is going to overshadow discussions within the G20?
It’s a very important question and frankly I cannot give you the answer because nobody knows what’s going to happen in the coming months. But let me say that you are right when you say the Europeans have understood the Indian position to a certain extent. We do hope the Indians have also understood the European position to a certain extent. The war in Ukraine is something that is having a very big impact on our daily life in Europe. It’s not only for Germany or Ukraine, it’s for the whole continent. Therefore, this is a matter of urgency and we have to cope with it, because we would love to sit down with everybody and talk [about] the planetarian problems, like climate change. But unfortunately, we have to cope with this very unfortunate war in Ukraine. I would say I’m not seeing that go away in a few months or so. Unfortunately, there is a high probability that it will play into the G20 partnership. But we’ve seen a very good declaration coming out of [the G20 Summit] in Bali, an excellent declaration kudos to the Indonesian presidency.
I am very confident the Indian presidency will also succeed in getting the G20 around the table and find words that are acceptable to everyone. We have high hopes, but I think the guess is certainly not unfounded that this conflict will play a role in the G20. You can’t exclude it.
Do you think the Ukraine conflict has implications for the rules-based order in other parts of the world?
Absolutely, frankly, this is what we see. You may say it’s not our part of the world, but what we see is a blatant violation of international law and we should only try hard to not make these violations happen. What we’ve seen in Arunachal [Pradesh] lately is also kind of just that.
India has had this situation on the LAC going on for more than two years now, and it was thought it was confined to one section of the LAC. Clearly this latest clash is not something small as hundreds of soldiers were involved.
I agree. I’m not fully aware of every detail, what I’m reading are media reports, but I can say that we are very concerned. We should avoid violation at international borders at all time. We in Europe see this war of aggression of Russia in our daily lives, when it comes to energy prices, when it comes to refugees, when it comes to dealing with Russians, and at all levels. But on an abstract level, it’s a concern for the whole world because it’s a breach of international law.
Would you look at what is happening on the Indian border in the same way?
Well, it’s very difficult to say as I’m not completely aware of what’s happening there. What I see is there is violence. There was violence in the western part, there is violence in the eastern part. I think this is a matter of concern. There shouldn’t be violence.
Most of India’s European partners have taken a strong position on the Indo-Pacific. We are seeing more and more countries issuing Indo-Pacific policies. Germany has made a few military forays into the Indo-Pacific. Will this continue and are you looking to work more closely with India in this region?
Yes, no doubt. A year-and-a-half ago, we published our Indo-Pacific guidelines and we have sent a frigate across the Indo-Pacific and also to India. We will continue this engagement. We have participated in this big manoeuvre with Australia – Pitch Black – and we are planning for the next frigate to come. There is a clear commitment from our side to look more carefully, more thoroughly and more robustly at the Indo-Pacific. We will talk to partners in our neighbourhood, like the French, to see whether we can do something together. And with India, of course, it’s very important. So, you can count on us on the Indo-Pacific. I think we have understood that this is an area of tension and a region that needs more attention and we will give that region the attention it deserves.
Germany has made a significant decision to change its defence policy and budget after a very long time. India is emerging as one of the players in making defence equipment. Do you foresee more collaboration in this field?
I do foresee more cooperation. I think minister Baerbock also said that she sees the need to cooperate more closely. You have to see that in Germany, the Russian aggression in Ukraine changed the whole mental setup. What we see is a new assessment of our self-defence capacity. We maybe, a little naively, were under the impression that our army basically has turned into an “out of area” army where we would go to Afghanistan or Mali and would not be needing the amount of self-defence and NATO defence forces that we now see that we need. This will change the whole procedure, but processes like this are painful and that implies also trying to reach out to partners in defence cooperation like India. I think we are on a good way but we need a little time. It’s not something that can be switched from one day to the other. We have a centre-left government in Germany, where arms export is a very sensitive matter. The government has already changed and I think it will also change in the months to come. It will take some time but I’m very confident that we will see more.
The two sides have signed a migration and mobility agreement and more Indian students are going to Germany. What are the new initiatives in this area?
Thank you for raising this subject because it’s of great importance to us. I would like to start by saying there will be always a need for skilled labour in Germany across the board, be it cooks or nurses or IT experts. What we’ll see in the coming years is an outreach towards India in order to get Indians and their families coming to Germany and joining our workforce, and we need them. One of the inflation drivers in Germany is the lack of skilled workers and labour, and therefore we will make an extra effort. Our agreement on mobility basically contains this idea that we will be opening up for legal migration to Indians citizens. We have a good diaspora of Indians in Germany, who have a very good reputation.
Do you have any kind of ballpark figure?
We don’t have a quota but I think the Indian diaspora in Germany is a couple of hundred thousands and it will grow. We have had an exponential growth of student numbers in Germany for various reasons. Once you finish your studies in Germany, you have a year to find a job. Actually my experience is that you don’t even need a month to find a job right now, and then they can stay. We are very interested to having them. Normally studies in state-run universities are free. So they get a very good education, they have a degree and then they join the labour market. We have about 35,000 students and the number is exponentially growing.
Would you like to increase it to a certain number?
I would say that as long as universities take applications from India, it’s fine. But we have one problem and many Indian students are aware of that. That’s the question of how long it takes to process your visa. When you come to German to study, you stay a couple of years. It’s clear that this can’t be done in two weeks. You need a certain amount of time. You have to go back to the authorities in Germany. It’s a bureaucratic process that takes a little time but it takes too much time right now. We are a little overwhelmed by the number of applications. We get about 1,000 applications a week and you should know that about 85% to 90% of the applications are very good and we like them, but 10% are fraud and we need to try to eliminate as much as possible these frauds. Therefore, we have introduced this Academic Assessment Institution that checks the documents and once you have a certificate from this institution, then the visa procedure hopefully goes very quickly.
Now we are talking about a couple of months and we want to reduce it. I think every Indian student who wants to come to Germany should know that by now these procedures will take four or five months...We’ll try to reduce the time. We are making huge efforts because we are interested in getting Indian students. But right now, you have to be a little patient. A lot of the social media are very critical with us. But you have to understand, we have to be thorough in our assessment of documents because we have experienced at least 10% of people who [are fraudulent applicants]. There are agencies in northern India which are very smart and they fool us a bit and I’m very sad because the overwhelming majority of people are good and they have to suffer from it.
We try to work on it. I understand the frustration, but my appeal to the Indian side is be a little patient. We will try to improve our proceedings and reduce the time.
There is now a lot of focus on talks between India and the EU on an FTA. Some EU diplomats say they want to get this done by 2023 but others believe this timeframe is a bit ambitious. What’s your take on that?
In Germany, we want this FTA, we really want it. It would change our business behaviour in India dramatically. You have heard that Germany is very much into this diversification discussion, where we feel that we are too dependent on China. We have to look elsewhere and unfortunately India is not as high on their agenda as it should be. There is no other country that can cope with China, people wise, development wise and so forth. People still think rather of Malaysia or Vietnam. I think why do they do that? Because there are some regulations [and] issues, there are protectionist movements here that somehow German business is not completely convinced. Although I must say that the 2,000-plus companies who are [in India], and we are by far the biggest trading partner in the EU, are doing good business. I have talked to 30 companies and they all are very happy. But the FTA would change a lot. I say that knowing the EU that it is not an easy partner when it comes to FTA negotiations because of the European parliament, and because of the 27 member states.
It’s not like the UK. You can do a quick FTA and then there’s only one parliament and they have to accept it. The EU is more complicated, but it’s also much more interesting. You know, it’s 450 million people and therefore I think it is the biggest trading bloc in the world. Therefore, for India, it’s a huge opportunity as it is for us. I’m very keen on this. Now, where would we stand? 2023 is an ambitious goal, if we get it done by then, kudos it’s great. It’s not a given but I think what we should do, we should really sit down and work hard on getting to bridge the differences. I think we are still pretty far away in many respects. But if there is a will from both sides, then we will find compromises. I can tell you the German government will do the utmost to encourage the European Commission to do these negotiations in the best of all faith. We will follow this closely because for us it would make such a difference if we have this FTA.