The India EU Summit: Belied Expectations
Amb Gurjit Singh

The 15th India EU Summit was held on 15 July 2020 in virtual mode. The process of Summits was instituted in 2000 and 12 Summits took place annually till 2012. The 13th took 4 years to materialize, in2016, where Italy held back the EU interaction with India even at the Summit level due to the Italian Marines issue.1 The 14th summit was held in 2017 and now it was delayed till 2020 so that the reelected Modi government could meet with the new EU leadership which took office in December 2019. The Summit was the first after Brexit.

The changed circumstances in the world, mainly the challenge of the Covid- 19 pandemic and the aggressive intent of China, as also the threats to globalisation and multilateralism, offered the ideal fertility for an effective India EU partnership. It was also hoped that to deal with a new world, the EU would recognise the bigger picture elements of the relationship while the nearly 30 fora for bilateral engagement could take care of the settled agendas and keep them running. The Summit was expected to break new ground. Perhaps, we were expecting it to walk on water and naturally it did not happen.

In the initial years the India EU summit format brought the country chairing the EU for the year and for the next with the EC President as a troika into the Summit. Given that several smaller countries could not rise above their narrow interests, saw the Summit loose its impact. The matrix was altered, in 2010, to have the Summit with the two high functionaries of the EU, the Presidents of the Council and the Commission. This removed the member states from the Summit. The weaknesses of the EU in a post Brexit and slow globalisation period thus also reflect on the partnerships they serve.

The EU likes to deal with green issues like Climate Change, technology and the like, as well as trade. It has surfeit of arrangements to talk but perhaps not enough to do. The longest paragraph in the Joint Statement is on the Green Deal. A slightly shorter one is on trade. In normal diplomatic parlance, the longer the paragraphs, the lesser action may be expected. Shorter paragraphs provide clarity of direction, not a mesh of restraining words.

At the present time, the self-reduction of its role by the USA, and the expansion of China’s influence were seen as detrimental to the India EU shared values. As the EU High Representative had written on 10 July, Europe needs partners to move ahead in the current disorder.2 India was not named in the blog but the intent of the Summit was perhaps to this end. The joint effort to work for reformed multilateralism, upholding the international rules-based order and bringing new international situations to multilateral attention were good focal points. These clearly aim to control the unbridled effort of an aggressive China to write its own rules on the globe. How much will the EU do to confront China in coordination with India, Japan and others was an important inflection point?3

This is important to India as the Chinese aggression on the LAC is part of these efforts that need to be countered. The EU had issued an anodyne statement after the Galwan clash calling on both sides to show restraint and deescalate. In the press interaction after the summit this was repeated. India prefers a stronger response from the EU if it really wants to defend the globe from Chinese predation. The ability to grasp the EUs preference for common values with India while its dominant economic partnership with a less worthy China, strains the ideas that they seek to propagate. While the EU has Euro 83 billion invested in India, Indian companies have invested Euro 50 billion in the EU4 without any of the rancor caused by Chinese FDI. The EUs own FDI in China is double that in India. Clearly China is not paying any costs for its ‘systemic rivalry’ with the EU as the 2018 EU China Strategy pointed out. 6,000 European companies are present in India, providing directly 1.7 million jobs and this is important to build upon since both sides focus on the importance of the private sector and the availability of sustainable finance. The opening of the Office of the European Investment Bank in 2016 has been a positive step5.

Some welcome parts of the Joint Statement emphasize the stability of the Indian Ocean and institution of new dialogues on maritime security and defence.6 Naval cooperation is a welcome addition too. The decision to have civilian nuclear cooperation is a positive step as an agreement was signed on the eve of the Summit. Terrorism is a high consideration for India and the decision to have Europol and CBI to work together on counterterrorism is an achievement. Cyber security and to cooperate on Global Cyber Resilience are noteworthy steps.

EU’s 2018 Connectivity Strategy for Asia7 is now more likely to see projects across the Indo Pacific in a new partnership. Mutual support to G20 Principles for Quality Infrastructure Investment and the G20 Operational Guidelines for Sustainable Financing are reiterated. This seems to be the first time the EU has perhaps used the term Indo Pacific in a joint statement. Support to infrastructure in India is more forthcoming through the metros in Lucknow8, Pune and Bhopal. Indian and the EU can look at such partnerships in third countries.9

The Climate change and sustainability agenda is dear to the EU and since the USA has withdrawn, Indian adherence should be better appreciated and valued. Better coordination with the International Solar Alliance10 has been mentioned but I would have preferred some concrete steps to support the ISA to be brought in. Cooperation on technology including 5G is on the anvil. The mutual agreement to harness human-centric digitalization to develop inclusive economies and societies is a forward looking one.

Given the world situation, the India EU relationship was expected to do much more. On this the steps seemed to falter. PM Modi came out quite clearly on the threat of China to India and to the ideals that the EU and India hold dear. It is also the main threat to multilateralism and the maintenance of international rules. However, the EU was strangely reticent on China even during the summit. This means that the partnership with the EU remains largely on paper principles and less on hard realities of geopolitics. Why is it that the EU leadership sought it fit to mention the situation in the J&K, but remained so quiet on China? Is the EU taking a leaf out the book of the ASEAN on how to deal with a marauding China?

The public expectation is that the EU is a chronicler of trade issues and brings extra elements to bear on it. On this occasion the evidence that India and EU remained far apart on the Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) was brought home to roost. Expectedly nothing happened because the EU cannot move beyond the ‘dreary desert sand of dead habit!’ They are still a prisoner of interest groups and now find fault with India’s new trade policies aimed to protecting itself from China in the main. The EU wishes to see principle in that; the BTIA is now frozen among incompatible interests. The decision to establish a High-Level Dialogue (another forum!) is the balm to perhaps try and take a wider systemic view without focusing merely on wine and cheese.

There is a sense that the EU recalls India more when a Summit or major meeting takes place. Otherwise India is not at the forefront of their thinking. Though the EU acknowledged India’s forthcoming G20 leadership and also discussed the WHO, WTO and the UN, it is imperative that if reformed multilateralism is to take strong face then the India EU partnership has to deepen in real terms. India has shown its clear intention to play a larger role in the world despite all challenges. The EU needs to step up to the crease in determined manner to take its own place alongside. The strategic elements in the Strategic Partnership seem to be more visible now and must be sustained. They can borrow from the relationship India has now constructed with France, Germany, the Nordic Countries, the Baltic and the Visegrad countries in Modi 2.0.

  1. India-EU Joint Statement on the 13th India-EU Summit, Brussels, 31 March 2016 para 12.
  3. See Gurjit Singh VIF…
  5. India-EU Joint Statement on the 13th India-EU Summit, Brussels, 31 March 2016 para 6.
  6. Joint Statement of the 15th India-EU Summit (July 15, 2020) MEA
  8. India-EU Joint Statement on the 13th India-EU Summit, Brussels, 31 March 2016 para 6.
  9. Joint Statement of the 15th India-EU Summit (July 15, 2020) MEA
  10. ibid

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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