India and the European Union: Virtual summit has sent positive signals to the world

The signing of the India-EURATOM Agreement on research and development cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy will cover all aspects of research and technological development, writes Amb Bhaswati Mukherjee (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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Held under the long shadow of a worsening global pandemic in the Chinese Year of the Rat, the 15th India-European Union Summit held on 15th July 2020 marked the coming of age of a summit-level strategic partnership that commenced 20 years ago in Lisbon in June 2000. It took then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to start a process which came into fruition under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The EU was represented by Charles Michel, President of the European Council, and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission.

The timing of the summit was also opportune given India’s membership of the UN Security Council in 2021-22, its G 20 Presidency in 2022 and being presently at the helm of affairs at the WHO.

A virtual and public show of solidarity, it helped to underline, one day after the French 14th July celebrations, of the common values that bind India and the world’s largest intrastate entity. Democracy, liberty and fraternity, along with human rights and fundamental freedoms, enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty find resonance in India’s Constitution, its noisy democracy and Parliament, its freewheeling press and its independent judiciary.

Roadmap to 2025

To an embattled EU, fighting conservatism and the rise of the extreme right, the moment could not have been more opportune to reaffirm in the Roadmap to 2025 that India and the EU are "unions of diversity" and share “values of democracy, rule of law and human rights” and “are equally convinced of the necessity to preserve the rules-based international order and effective multilateralism.”

For India, facing an increasingly aggressive, militaristic and expansionist China at a time when corona cases have crossed one million, the Summit also provided an opportune moment to highlight that the EU shared many common security threats with India, not just in India’s neighbourhood but in the South China Sea and the Indo Pacific. It was time for the EU to finally acknowledge that China’s rise represented a fundamental threat to the Western democratic liberal order. This would not be an easy admission. Annual Summits with China, including the most recent, traditionally focus on the all-important trading links. The 17 plus 1 China Group exposed the deep fault lines within the EU on a united China policy.

Terrorism nurtured and encouraged by the Pakistan 'deep state' and its treacherous double-dealing in an increasingly complex Afghan scenario was high on India’s agenda. A path-breaking agreement on civil nuclear cooperation was another priority issue. A virtual summit is a diplomatic challenge. There is no personal chemistry between leaders established through one-on-one meetings without record takers. The EU side had a new team without any earlier interaction with India’s prime minister. The ice was reportedly broken through discussions ahead of the summit by India’s able External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and his EU counterpart.

While summit language can often be opaque, the Joint Statement and the ambitious Roadmap to 2025 did mark a change from the past. The Joint Statement contained an unambiguous reaffirmation of the strong commitment of both sides to maintain “global peace and security, disarmament and non-proliferation and to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, including its financing and countering radicalization.

"India and the EU will intensify exchanges and cooperation in this regard. The leaders agreed to launch a dialogue on maritime security and consultations on security and defence, and to enhance naval cooperation. They underlined the need to preserve safety and stability in the Indian Ocean…… India and the EU will continue to cooperate on international and regional issues of common interest including Iran and Afghanistan.”

The new emerging global order in the post-corona era recognizes India as a key strategic partner to maintain maritime security in the Indian Ocean and the Indo Pacific. The Roadmap institutionalizes this evolution through the decision to “establish regular security consultations between the EU and India, focusing on exchange on strategic priorities, security issues, crisis management and peacekeeping…and to strengthen military-to-military relations and exchanges.”

In the past, smaller EU member states had tried to block civilian nuclear cooperation with India, insisting that India was not a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Resistance continued even after India became a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The signing of the India-EURATOM Agreement on research and development cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy will cover all aspects of research and technological development established in the EURATOM Framework Programmes of the EU for nuclear research and training activities. It is a significant breakthrough and will positively impact the partnership.

Trade deal 

There had been much speculation about a trade deal.  The failures to kickstart the long stalemated negotiations on the BTIA (Broad-based Trade and Investment Agreement) represents a constant irritant in the common quest to discover a new strategic paradigm.  Having pulled out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) last year, there has been speculation of India doing a separate deal with the EU so as to entrench itself in the global supply chains. The decision in the Roadmap to establish a High-Level Dialogue at ministerial level for bilateral trade and investment relations is an acknowledgement that the irritants and impediments to a BTIA require to be addressed at a political level. 

PM Modi reassured the EU leadership at the press conference that ‘Atmabirbhar Bharat' (self reliant India) is aimed at integrating domestic production with global supply chains. European business and investment were most welcome in India. PM Modi underlined “This partnership can play a key role in post Covid 19 economic reconstruction and human-centric globalization.”

Overall, the takeaways from this first-ever virtual summit are most positive. In the context of the tense standoff on the India-China border, the reassurance provided by the EU leadership at the highest level: “Our main message is that EU stands by India as friends and partners” is one that augers well for an underexploited and under-utilized strategic partnership. India could expect no less from the EU. 

(The writer is a former Indian ambassador to the Netherlands who has long dealt with India-EU ties. The views expressed are personal)

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