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The EU-India Helsinki Summit

Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 10, 2006

    The Seventh EU-India Summit will be held on October 13th in Helsinki. The annual summits take place alternately in New Delhi and in the capital of the incumbent European Union presidency - at present held by Finland - under the existing framework of EU-India relationship, which was given the shape of a 'strategic partnership' at the EU-India Summit of 2004 in The Hague. The Joint Action Plan (JAP) adopted at the New Delhi Summit in 2005 was a comprehensive programme of EU-India engagement in the coming years. As the EU-India strategic partnership has started to attract interest in Europe, India and at the international level, it would be pertinent to carry out an overview of this strategic partnership on the eve of the summit.

    Before the EU-India strategic partnership came into being, India had been maintaining bilateral strategic partnerships with major European nations like Britain, France and Germany for a few years. Recent events show that major European nations are indeed interested in intensifying their bilateral engagements with India: be it India as the theme of the recently concluded International Book Fair in Frankfurt, the British Strategy Paper for 2015, which earmarks India and China as the focus, or the visit of the Indian Defence Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, to France and Germany in early September 2006. Given this trend of an intensified bilateral relationship with European majors, some pertinent questions need to be posed. Does the EU-India relationship really deserve the attention and toil of the foreign policy makers in India? Is the EU, a 25-member juggernaut which will include two more nations, Bulgaria and Romania, in January 2007, really going somewhere? Moreover as basic notions of a global organisation or a political entity is seen from this part of the world, the most vital question is whether the EU is indeed a power (read militarily) or is it one in the making? The prevailing perception about the above-mentioned questions would be negative as both the referenda in France and in the Netherlands in the summer of 2005 were against a more cohesive EU - in the form of a European Constitution - and the bitter controversy around the EU budget in late 2005. One may describe these negative developments as symptoms of 'Euroschlerosis'.

    Developments in the last year and the unresolved issues may also add to the fuzziness of the future of the union. Issues worth mentioning in this context include: the long and prolonged debate on Turkey's membership; German Chancellor Angela Merkel's support to a reference to 'Christianity' in a revised European Constitution; Britain's restriction of access to skilled workers from Romania and Bulgaria, despite the two countries being full members of the EU. The British decision to control migration from those two new members actually emanates from the statistics that the number of immigrants from these new member states has increased more than twenty times in the last year alone. This is a reflection of the anxiety over 'Polish plumbers' which partially contributed towards the rejection of a European Constitution in France last year. Therefore, strategic experts influenced by these cross-purposeful developments, may come to the conclusion that the EU has indeed reached a rudderless situation.

    Nevertheless, those who observe the sophistication of the EU's working procedures would be overwhelmed by the daily volume of business completed by the basic EU institutions, namely the European Commission in Brussels, the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Brussels and Luxembourg, and the incumbent EU presidencies. At a more practical level, there is also criticism against the expensive translations of basic EU documents from English to Slovenian or from French to Latvian and travelling allowances for EU officialdom as a burden on the European taxpayers. Differences of vision also prevail amongst the major European political groups who want to see the EU to be developed in accordance with their respective ideological moorings - red, green, Christian or liberal. However, the distinctiveness of the EU lies in the flexibility to arrive at a decision mostly based on consensus amongst its member nations. For observers from other parts of the globe it is undeniably an experience where continuous compromise is achieved amongst 25-plus member nations on a daily basis in almost all aspects of European lives. Therefore, without being aware of the complexities of the EU and its nitty-gritty, sweeping comments and juxtaposing EU with the US, in order to prove the former's non-viability as a military bloc, are only indicative of the observers' unwillingness to get into pain-staking details of the EU and thus superficially following Robert Kagan's hypothesis that the United States is from Mars while Europe is from Venus.

    However, as far as India's engagement with the EU is concerned, it has shown willingness to go beyond the 'traditional trajectories' in its foreign policy and thus engage almost all parts of the world. Economic diplomacy has become the major component in this endeavour. As the election manifestos in 2004 of both the major electoral combines in India, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), were unambiguous in giving due importance to the EU, it is obvious that at the political level there exists a consensus in considering the EU as a global power to be reckoned with. Not only there exists political consensus, there is also an increasing interest about the EU among the public and media, which could not be imagined even five years ago. The EU today, with a population of more than 450 million, a strong common currency in the Euro, a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US $13 trillion (in 2006), economically and technologically competitive production regions throughout the continent and growing irrelevance of national borders, does in fact offer enormous opportunities for Indian trade and industry. On the other hand, the EU has also been observing the economic and technological growth of India and its expanding middle class over the last decade and major European brands are keen to enter the Indian consumer market.

    In fact, trade is found to be the main driving force of the present Indo-EU relationship. Indian trade and industry have not only invested in Western Europe but also made their presence felt in Central and East European countries (CEEC), which so far remain unexplored as an investment destination. Indian majors like Kirolskar, TCS, and Dabur have already started their operations in East European nations like Hungary and Romania. However, there are also problem areas in this arena. For instance, the EU has complained about high Indian duties on European wines. For its part, India complains about visa restrictions faced by Indian businessmen and discrimination against Indian professionals in Europe. This issue can be addressed through the mechanism of the proposed Comprehensive Economic Co-operation Agreement (CECA), the signing of which would provide a boost to India-EU ties.

    Technological cooperation remains one of the main pillars of the Indo-EU strategic partnership. Be it Indian participation in the EU global navigation system, Galileo, or membership in International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor [ITER] project, both India and EU have been engaging each other with greater vigour. Not only at the EU level, but also individual member nations and European defence industry in the last year have started their businesses in India or have shown willingness to participate in defence co-production. A EU-India Aviation Summit, which follows the Helsinki Summit, would address the new challenges in civilian aircraft technology.

    However, the most important and interesting thing would be the outcome of the coming summit in the area of EU-India co-operation to combat terror. As India has been experiencing both home-grown and cross-border terrorist attacks - the latest manifestations being Mumbai and Malegaon - Europe is also facing the scourge. In fact both the two previous EU-India summits were held in the background of terrorist attacks. The EU-India Joint Action Plan of 2005 has therefore resolved to establish contacts between the Indian and EU Counter-Terrorism Co-ordinators. In this regard, it must be mentioned that the EU Counter-Terrorism Co-ordinator is a new post that came into existence after the Madrid terrorist attacks on March 11, 2004. Gijs de Vries, the EU Counter-Terrorism Co-ordinator, does not have the power or the enormous mandate that his counterparts in other countries have. Therefore in the coming months it would be interesting to observe whether EU member nations take it as a priority to strengthen the institution of EU Counter-Terrorism Co-ordinator, which would definitely reinforce European co-operation with other governments in the campaign against terror. It is therefore expected that till the institution of EU Counter-Terrorism Co-ordinator gets a full-fledged mandate, India would follow the existing bilateral frameworks with European nations in the form of Joint Working Groups on Terrorism.

    In conclusion, it must be reiterated that the EU-India relationship is a rather innovative one in comparison to India's time-tested relationships with major European nations. However, in a short span of time, the EU-India relationship has shown tremendous potential in various areas. Given the multicultural nature of both the EU and India they share common concerns and have already decided to learn from each other's experiences. Similarly, India and the EU are also devoted to multilateral approaches towards current global challenges. It must therefore be remembered that any analysis of the challenges in the EU-India strategic partnership should be undertaken giving due consideration to the complex but dynamic EU integration process, the interlinking of different EU institutions in a specific decision and the daily challenges the EU faces as a unique organisation.