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India, EU need to move towards a Dynamic Relationship
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Ambassador Bhaswati Mukherjee
The author is a former Indian Ambassador to The Netherlands who was concurrently accredited to the ICJ.

Relations between India and the European Union (EU) officially date back to the early 1960s. Contrary to popular perception within the 28-nation EU – which was encouraged by the United Kingdom (UK) – India never looked at its relations with the EU through the prism of its bilateral relationship with its former colonizer. India’s engagement with Europe remains a separate and important pillar of its foreign policy. This is shaping India’s approach to the EU after Brexit.  

The common commitment to democracy and rule of law, to the market economy and to inclusive development, is a defining factor in India-EU relations. Yet, despite these common traits and a long historical connection, Europe has only recently rediscovered India. The moot question is, when will India rediscover Europe? Does India look at the EU as a significant partner? How does one tap the full potential of the partnership? 

The evolution of a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional relationship was not an easy one. Europe and India are both similar and dissimilar. India and Europe, while facing many challenges after the end of World War II, continued to have different approaches, based on differing perceptions of the world order and their place in the global community. Both had to rethink their place in the world and to re-examine their relationships with new and emerging global players.  

India and the EU are combating similar challenges in the form of international terrorism, terrorist networks and sleeper cells as well as the threat of global Islamic fundamentalism. Unlike India, Europe is also facing another threat from within: Their marginalized and often impoverished Muslim populations who hold EU passports but feel they have no stakes in Europe’s future.  

India and the EU should have become important poles in an emerging multi-polar world. Multi-polarity is based on the classical European political theory of balance of power. It implies a distribution of power in which more than four nation-states have nearly equal amounts of military, cultural, and economic influence. This, according to some European political scientists, ensures that in times of crises, international decisions are crafted for strategic reasons to maintain a reasonable balance of power.  

India never supported the theory of ‘balance of power,’ so dear to classical European diplomacy of the time. The differing positions between India and EU on multi-polarity as well as on ‘new rule-based multilateralism’ are a challenge. There is a total absence of consensus on the definition of multi-polarity versus balance of power. There are divergent perceptions about the role of Europe and India in triangular relationships involving Europe, USA and India or China, India and Russia. The European view of India and the EU being independent poles competing with the USA did not fit in with India’s new strategic paradigm. USA was not a competing pole. It was a supportive pole as far as India was concerned. This distinction underlines India’s strategic priorities of the time.  

The new challenges facing the EU today are linked to the tectonic events that unfolded in the last two decades of the 20th century. In retrospect, the process of EU expansion was carried through too rapidly. The seeds of an internal crisis within the EU were sown during the expansion process itself. Post Lisbon, multiple new global challenges started posing a threat to the cherished ideals of European unity and solidarity. Europe began searching for new strategic partners like India.  

India took time to adjust to the new emerging world order. Hesitant to completely jettison non-alignment, the Indian leadership saw in the breakup of the former USSR and the decline of the emerging Russian Federation an opportunity to search for new strategic paradigms, consonant with its national interests. India was hesitant to accept the EU’s suggestion that it embrace a strategic partnership with the EU and become a new ‘pole’ in a multi-polar world.    

Brexit remains a fundamental challenge for the unity of Europe. Brexit has reignited the debate about the advantages of regionalism vis-a-vis nationalism. Brexit is a challenge to European ideals which led to the creation of the Union. UK would have to pay a very heavy price as ‘divorce costs’ for Brexit. On the other hand, the EU is uneasily aware that UK remains a strong service economy ($2.6 trillion) and a permanent member of the Security Council, a nuclear weapon state as well as an important member of NATO.  

An acceptable working arrangement would need to be negotiated between UK and the EU, preferably by the end of 2018. Much depends on the final deal closing the chapter on the most expensive and bitter divorce since the establishment of the European Union. A bad deal is to no one’s advantage.   

A continent which prided itself on having given democracy, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms to the world is facing the greatest challenge to its own values, partly due to the impact of waves of migrants, not just from Syria but also from Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Compounded with multiple terrorist strikes at the heart of Europe, the EU has had to reluctantly concede that terrorism had finally come to roost from within. The greatest challenge to Europe and its liberal democratic values were now coming from within, from marginalized EU citizens with nothing to lose and no stakes in Western values.  

Inability amongst many EU member states to accept a multi-cultural identity for their societies led to either rigid secularism or repeated exhortations to minorities to assimilate with the mainstream. A sharply declining population and a lack of a productive work force remains an immediate challenge to European prosperity. With the rise of right-wing parties across Europe, it seems unlikely that this demographic crisis can be resolved through controlled legal migration in the short or medium term.  

To redefine the partnership and make it relevant in this millennium is the need of the hour. Both sides should agree on a common strategic paradigm. Negative perceptions from both sides require to be fully addressed; the EU and India should better understand and appreciate each other and change public perceptions on both sides. There is reluctance by the EU to accept that India, a nearly three trillion dollar economy, is a valuable asset and that the India-EU relationship needs to be nurtured and strengthened.   

The EU and the Commission are now showing greater sensitivity to India’s perspectives. It is clear that India may need to be more circumspect in its strategic choices and be more sensitive to changing external conditions while preserving its strategic autonomy. The EU on its part would need to offer a partnership of equality and understanding based on both hard and soft power.  

To achieve the full potential, the EU and India must also push forward on trade negotiations, carry out critical and frank reviews of the whole partnership architecture, recruit more stakeholders— from lawmakers and civil society members to business leaders—into the dialogue, and shore up sources of funding for joint initiatives. It must revive civil society dialogue and people to people contacts as well as institutionalised interaction with the European Parliament.  

While India may continue to shy away from “alliances,” it has to acknowledge that it has become part of a rapidly increasing number of ‘arrangements’ of differing purpose, cohesiveness, and geographic extension. Each arrangement comes with obligations that impact on India’s foreign policy options.  

Indian policymakers had sought to replicate with the EU at an institutional level, India’s strong bilateral relations with its key European partners, notably France and Germany. In retrospect, this may have been an error, reflecting an inadequate understanding of the actual functioning of these institutions.  

Indian policymakers are aware that the constant and creative tension between the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the foreign policy priorities of the bigger EU member states needs to be addressed internally. The reluctance to give priority to relations with India over China is baffling. Why is India at second place? This unfortunate bias of Brussels towards China (because of the huge economic partnership) needs to be adjusted if Brussels wishes India to take it seriously.  

India and the EU could contribute to establishing a multilateral engagement in the Indian Ocean, by building on existing arrangements and platforms such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association. They could also work more closely in the field of maritime surveillance. Partnership in the maritime domain already exists through the ‘Contact Group on Piracy’ off the coast of Somalia. The two partners could cooperate in this region to tackle radicalisation and violent extremism. The 15th Summit, whose dates have not yet been decided, could focus on cooperation on CSFP as well as economic issues.  

The ‘Way Forward’ would depend on both sides bridging the gap and moving towards a dynamic relationship which corresponds with the political needs of both sides, a pragmatic business relationship and a BTIA based on equality and need. India needs to effectively demonstrate its emerging great power status to a European Union now anxious to reach out and consolidate a potentially dynamic partnership. If successful, it could alter fundamentally the geopolitics of this millennium. The rest of the 21st century could then belong to India and the EU.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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