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India-EU ties: Stuck in bureaucratic quagmire

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  • May 05, 2016

    India is juxtaposing its strategic position in the world by putting greater emphasis on its ties with the United States in contrast to the importance it accords to the European Union (EU). India-EU relations are getting overshadowed by the presence of China at the economy level. EU on the other hand is showing evident keen interest in transatlantic partnership with US. With India and EU looking at opposite sides and a resurgent China, it is pertinent to ask if the Indo-EU relations are withering or not.
    It is interesting to observe that EU initially wooed Chinese dragon before the Indian elephant on the trade side. The times and scenarios have changed given the present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has launched ‘Make in India’ campaign and has streamlined its processes of doing business. It is for the benefit of India to engage EU strategically on the economic front so as to counter and even halt the Chinese run as it ascends to higher economic growth. EU believes that it will show greater interest in economic reforms undertaken by the Modi government provided that the same sustain in a stable, investment friendly environment. The question remains whether India and EU believe in taking its economic core of relations to the next stage. There have been dismal figures, as shown by Eurostat in terms of trade between India and EU, to show that not much has improved on the goods and services front in 2015.

    The recently concluded India-EU Summit on March 30, 2016 had questions raised on its outcome given the Free Trade Agreement impasse and the efforts made to revive the trade negotiations continue to be in the doldrums. Nevertheless, India under the leadership of Narendra Modi has managed to generate certain positive returns during the 13th India-EU Summit. These are in the form of India-EU water, solar partnerships and European investments in India Smart cities. The questions, however, to be asked is that of follow-ups in terms of work done at the grass roots level on policy issues discussed during the course of summit. The Modi-led NDA government believes in governance lies not in Delhi durbars but at level of State in the spirit of cooperative federalism. It is hopeful that much comes of EU’s association with Indian states like Haryana, Telengana on sustainable development and clean energy issues.

    ‘India has been committed to an early and balanced outcome of the European Union broad based trade and investment agreement’, said the Union Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in a reply to Lok Sabha during the question hour session. The stock-taking meetings held on January 18 and February 22, 2016 were efforts in addressing outstanding issues like visas for Indian professionals, data secure status, European demand of lowering duties in automobile sector among a host of others. India is by no means displaying protectionist stance but only explicitly expressing its right to safeguard its domestic auto industry. The Brexit issue is also not a factor as perceived for delaying the trade negotiations.

    There is often this prevailing misperception that Italy mariners issue is stalling the progress of India-EU relations. It is to be understood India hold value each of its relations with EU member states and EU as a whole that it would not jeopardise either of them. Italian mariners issue as arbitrated by United Nation tribunal has acknowledged the supremacy of the Supreme Court of India and confirmed Italy’s obligations to send the accused back to India. It is pertinent to note that issue is not of scoring brownie points as to which country got the verdict in its favour. It is primarily a question of resolving the mariners issue amicably under due process of law.

    The withering away as so often quoted stand its ground in this context in the case of India in understanding European Union. In India, unless technically sound experts who understand both institutions and nuances involved in dealing with the EU are placed in charge to deal with the problems involved between India and EU, the future of India EU relations may not brighten up. India does not have too many specialists on EU as in research circles it is less preferred given the over emphasis on its neighbourhood policies. As a result, the personnel who run India’s policy towards EU are largely bureaucratic, whose knowledge of EU institutions and working are anything but sound.

    Further, the political side of the relationship between India and EU remains a matter of concern. In the mid-2000s the EU and India tried remedial action by upgrading engagements at the ministerial level but first the EU economic crises and then the Indian slowdown have turned both inwards. As a result the relationship lapsed into bureaucratic red tapism and delays. Even Hong Kong seems to have done a better job in dealing with EU than India. So it is the need of the hour to actualize the strategic partnerships and winning over perception battle in terms what EU thinks of India and vice versa. The clearance of misperceptions and coverage of the same will go long way in strengthening the relationship.

    The EU-India strategic partnership should be seen as a work in progress, building from the bottom up. India and the EU share historic ties and there is a need for further improvement through regular and outcome based dialogues. In the new changing world order, India- EU relations can grow, but there is a need to reallocate the focus from mere trade ties to many other areas including geostrategic issues. This shift has to be tread cautiously given that the Indian strategic interests are often seen turning towards United States. India as widely seen through global lens possesses three assets, that is, ‘democracy, demography and digital’ and with which, it stands to gain in Europe in the years to come. There exists enormous potential to carry forward the India-EU relations and deepen them to the advantage of both sides. But the vision to do it and a concrete long term plan has to be put in place.

    (Dr. Mathew Sinu Simon is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He can be reached at:

    The article was originally published in the South Asia Monitor