With a French Presidency, the strategic partnership between India and the EU could finally bloom to its full potential, writes Amb Bhaswati Mukherjee (retd.) for South Asia Monitor
The French Presidency of the EU (January 1-June 30, 2022) provides an opportune moment to reinvigorate India-EU ties in a rapidly changing global landscape. The French Ambassador to India, Emmanuel Lenain, at a virtual event on January 18 underlined that the Presidency would facilitate a better understanding in India and among Indians of the “seamless connect between France and the EU”.
French President Emmanuel Macron, in an hour-long presentation at the Élysée Palace, announced ‘Recovery, Strength and a sense of Belonging’ as the Presidency’s new focus. A clear, indeed bold re-assertion of EU leadership is much welcome and long awaited.
The Presidency is taking place against the backdrop of health, energy and migration crises and rising tensions on the EU’s Eastern border as the Ukraine-Russia conflict threatens to escalate.
India has many expectations from a French presidency. As one of New Delhi’s most trusted strategic partners, India looks to France to provide leadership within the EU to strengthen its ‘EU Indo Pacific Policy’ announced on September 16, 2021. India had been juggling its national security interests in this vast and volatile region. The policy shift was a welcome development to India and the Quad.
The strategic shift on the Indo Pacific came with some significant public announcements in September. “There has been a significant military build-up, including by China, with the Indo-Pacific’s share of global military spending increasing from 20 percent of the world total in 2009 to 28 percent in 2019. The display of force and increasing tensions in regional hotspots … may have a direct impact on European security and prosperity.”
This was taken further by the new Presidency while outlining its areas of focus. “EU’s access to contested strategic areas will be a priority.” The Presidency will proceed to implement the ‘Coordinated Maritime Presence’ in a new area of the Indo-Pacific. The EU will update the ‘EU Maritime Security Strategy’ (EUMSS) “to meet current and future challenges”.
Of greater significance was the announcement that along with the High Representative, the Presidency will hold a Ministerial Forum on February 22, 2022, bringing together Member States, the European Commission and Indo-Pacific partner countries. The Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has confirmed his participation. Many positive takeaways are expected.
The Forum will address specific challenges related to security and defence and digital and connectivity issues in the context of the ‘Global Gateway Initiative’, the EU’s 300 billion Euros international investment project. The intention is to develop infrastructure worldwide as well as global challenges such as global health, climate change, biodiversity and the protection of oceans.
India wary of BRI
As an influential emerging power and a natural partner to the EU in the Indo-Pacific, India has many apprehensions about the real intentions behind China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in its immediate neighbourhood and beyond.
India and the EU have common priorities in cooperating on Global Gateway. It is a critical European strategy, focusing on building resilient connections both within Europe and beyond through “links and not dependencies”. Rooted in multilateralism, it intends to implement a “Team Europe” strategy to unite EU Member States, European financial institutions and national development banks while engaging actively with international partner states such as the United States, India and Japan.
Indo-Pacific partners like Japan and India have already concluded connectivity partnerships with the EU. India’s partnership was spelt out in a separate communication on November 9, 2021.
A renewed strengthening of the ‘Common Foreign and Security Policy’ has provided much cheer to policymakers in India. On defence and security, the new strategy can help coordinate and integrate European industry to explore opportunities that are mutually beneficial. India has close bilateral defence ties with several individual European countries. An EU wide approach is much required.
The resumption of EU-India negotiations on the long-stalled BTIA (Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement) announced at the last India EU Summit in Porto, Portugal, is likely to favourably impact the scope for cooperation between India and Global Gateway. An India branch of the European Chamber of Commerce is being established and is likely to be announced on ‘Europe Day’ on May 9, 2022.
Given France’s leadership role in combating climate change and the importance of encouraging green investment and green infrastructure to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement, India looks to the EU for greater support for its efforts. The EU can provide resources, technical knowhow and capabilities to enable India to realize its climate action targets.
The strategy can be used to promote the development of a sustainable blue economy, as outlined in the India EU Roadmap to 2025, and to support a green transition across the world.
India has been encouraging the EU to engage with leaders from the African and the Pacific regions to import Indian solar panels. These solar panels will be far cheaper than their Chinese counterparts and would reduce their dependence on China.
With Omicron moving like a tornado through India and EU, cooperation in managing the global pandemic is a priority for both India and the EU. India, like EU, is committed to a strategy of full vaccination and assistance to those regions, including Africa that does not have access to affordable vaccines.
The messages received from the Presidency are reassuring. “The French Presidency is committed to maintaining close cooperation in response to the public health crisis. The Presidency is will pursue international solidarity efforts, especially with regard to Africa, for access to vaccines for low- and middle-income countries.”
Hopes on France
India would hope for support from the Presidency for EU to give a positive response to vaccines and a WTO patent waiver for India on the Covid-19 vaccines. Earlier, despite US endorsement, the EU has remained silent on the South African initiative in WTO to suspend on a temporary basis the Trips provision on patents.
The present leadership of the EU reflects a delicate balance within the EU between liberalism and populism. The French Presidential elections scheduled for April 2022 will be a major turning point in European affairs. President Macron remains the frontrunner. The results of the upcoming French presidential elections could sway the European governance for this decade either towards pro-European or Eurosceptics as the leading candidates in the French presidential elections have made migration an important focus.
European political affairs began a new chapter after German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s resignation and Macron currently possesses the greatest political leverage at the EU level. Her departure gives President Macron the necessary space for a stronger EU in a multipolar world. This has been his stated desire since 2017.
In a complex world, rendered more complex by the fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021 to the Taliban, India hopes that the EU, under a French Presidency, will strongly contribute along with its strategic partners like India to international peace and security.
My book on “India and the EU: An Insider’s View” points out: “A nation’s foreign policy is strongly influenced by its history, geographic location, its strategic environment, the imperatives of its neighbourhood and the perception of its own status in the international community. This is true for both India and the EU.
“Both are pursuing domestic and foreign policy agendas while facing many new global challenges. In doing so, they are also shaping a new world order. Are their responses in tandem with each other? Can they be strategic partners in this new millennium?”
Jaishankar had earlier announced the parameters of a new Indian foreign policy. “Engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia and bring Japan into play.” The “cultivation” of Europe and the EU was long overdue. With a French Presidency to facilitate that seamless connect between bilateral relationships to a multilateral partnership, the strategic partnership could finally bloom to its full potential. It would facilitate a multipolar Asia in a multipolar world, a long-cherished vision of India, France and the EU.
(The writer is a former ambassador who dealt for long years with the European Union. The views expressed are personal.)