Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 26, 2019
Growing beyond the bilateral

Prime Minister Modi should see France both, as a partner and a motor for India-EU relations

For French President Emmanuel Macron, meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday must have been both, a pleasure and a relief. Just one day earlier, he received British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for lunch and told him that renegotiating the agreements between the EU and the UK on Brexit is “no option”. Macron has been the most impatient of European leaders regarding Brexit and France expects the UK’s crashing out of the European Union without a deal now as the most likely scenario, but he strongly wants Europe to move on.

Compared to the British mess, relations between India and France are straightforward, still on an upward trajectory and a clear “win-win”. France and India have a large number of common strategic interests and a surprisingly similar worldview. France is therefore India’s perfect go to partner in Europe. In a joint press conference in Paris on Thursday, both leaders announced not only the delivery of the first Rafale combat aircraft in the third week of September but also offers for the construction of six nuclear power reactors in Jaitapur, space surveillance for a “joint maritime domain awareness mission” in the Indo-Pacific and a “roadmap on cyber security and digital technology”.

The fact that Macron clearly supported India’s position on Kashmir is a fruit of this long-term strategic partnership that started in the 1980s and now has the potential to extend beyond the bilateral. Given the fact that the EU as a whole and many member states are interested in taking the strategic partnership with India to the next level, Paris can be the driving force in Europe for this process and is well placed for this role. After Brexit, France will be EU’s sole nuclear power and member of the UN Security Council. It therefore enjoys a central position in the European security architecture.

France supports a stronger role for India on the international level and Indo-French friendship can be supportive in Europe as well and deepen the partnership between India and the continent as a whole. While France is not the only European country that supports a seat for India in the UN Security Council (Germany does it, too), there are other areas, where European member-states have different views, for example in the export of military equipment. In a time where many international players such as China, Russia and even the USA and UK are trying to divide the European Union for different internal reasons, India could go a long way by trying to understand the complex realities of the EU and its member states and even support the European integration process to some extent.

There are many ways to do this. The “International Solar Alliance” (ISA) initiated jointly by India and France, for example could draw more attention and, in fact more members from Europe as there is significant expertise on solar energy in countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain. These countries already evinced their interest in joining the ISA.

The most fruitful avenues of extending the scope of the Indo-French strategic partnership are in military and economic cooperation. France is the main proponent of the new concept of  “European Strategic Autonomy” that is not only a reaction to the criticism of US-President Donald Trump that Europe does not contribute enough to its own defense. Many member-states are exploring new ways to strengthen European security institutions and the “Permanent Structured Cooperation” (PESCO) is an expression of this.

For France “European Strategic Autonomy” is a continuation of its very own concept of “National Strategic Autonomy” and this should ring just natural in Indian ears as New Delhi has been following traditionally a very similar approach. Sharing experiences could therefore be a fruitful exercise. However, Modi and this team should keep in mind that “French governments have a tendency to take initiatives unilaterally in military and diplomatic affairs and expect partners’ full support (usually to be disappointed), which in fact weakens political unity”, as Alice Pannier writes in a policy brief for the German Marshall Fund. It could be therefore in the long-term Indian interest to listen carefully to other European partners.

France sees India as its best bet to stay relevant in Asia whereas India might see France in a similar position in Europe. Therefore both countries will benefit if they play a role as bridge-builders who bring their friends and partners on board. While the common European defense structure and industry is still in a nascent state, the first test for a larger common initiative could be the long-stalled India-EU free trade agreement (FTA).

While everybody knows that this would be of enormous benefit for both sides. Even more so now since economies in Europe and India are showing serious signs of a slowdown. Signing the agreement that has been on the negotiating-table for many years will require a leap of faith from both sides. While everybody involved in the process is expressed a “strong will” to go forward, as EU-Ambassador to India, Tomasz Kozlowski says, the devil still lies in the detail and needs first and foremost political leadership in order to be removed.

It would be a great achievement and a sign of hope in times when the rules based international order is under serious stress, if France and India could jointly take their countries and the European Union to new levels of partnership.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Rachita Misra

Rachita Misra

Rachita Misra Associate Director (Knowledge and Advocacy) SELCO Foundation

Read More +