Event ReportsPublished on Jun 28, 2021
The future of India-EU relations
As Portugal took over the Presidency of the EU Council, ORF in collaboration with the Embassy of Portugal in India, curated a series of virtual discussions on strengthening India-EU relations. The final session of this series involved a conversation with S. Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister, India and Augusto Santos Silva, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Portugal (moderated by Samir Saran, President, ORF) to provide a ‘big picture’ vision on the future of India-EU relations. With a favourable conclusion of the May 2021 EU-India Leaders’ Summit, it is important to highlight that the Portuguese Presidency was crucial in providing new impetus and renewed energy to this bilateral relationship. Minister S. Jaishankar praised the new momentum, particularly in the areas of trade, investment, connectivity, and the EU’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific. Recognising that we live in a rebalancing, multipolar world, both India and the EU should aim to build a more ‘compact’ relationship to engage with this new reality. Defining transformational trends, such as the rise of China and the influence of a new administration in Washington D.C., need to be taken into account going forward. Speaking on the importance of the Indo-Pacific region, Minister Silva emphasised that the oldest Indo-Pacific strategy belongs to the Portuguese, since Portugal has old historic links with this region. With the recent EU Council Resolution on the Indo-Pacific, there is recognition of the fact that the Asia Pacific is an anachronistic term, while the Indo-Pacific reflects the globalised world more accurately. As such, the May 2021 summit saw the resumption of a high-level dialogue between the two largest democracies in the world and placed political partnership—particularly in the Indo Pacific—at the forefront of deliberations. The EU appreciates the importance of maintaining relations with diverse actors—from major global players such as the US, to regional blocs like Africa. Nonetheless, for engaging in this region, India is identified as one of the closest partners for Europe. India, with its pluralistic society, market economy and political democracy, naturally has greater comfort with players that are similar to it, such as the EU. For both India and the EU, the rise of China presents challenges that need to be addressed specifically. From the EU’s perspective, Minister Silva described relations with China as a complex and multifaceted one.  In certain areas—such as climate change—China is a close partner, while in areas like technology and renewable energy, they are selective partners only. With regard to 5G networks, EU maintains the need to be ‘realistic and reasonable’. For its part, Portugal does not distinguish between companies on the basis of nationality, but is keen on maintaining stringent security standards and working towards the larger goal of an autonomous and digitally sovereign Europe. In regions such as Latin America and Africa where trade relations are unbalanced, Brussels and Beijing are competitors. On the other hand, EU and China are systemic rivals as well; they hold diverging views on political fundamentals, human rights, and the role of civil society. Human rights violations in the Xinjiang province or the threat to democratic space in Hong Kong represent ‘red lines’ in EU’s relations with China. In this context, EU’s political institutions are closer to those of India—a factor that has helped to strengthen bilateral partnership between the two. With the signing of the India-EU Connectivity Partnership, Minister Jaishankar noted that connectivity is now one of the major pillars of engagement between India and the EU. Physical connectivity should be global, transparent, commercially viable, environment friendly, community responsive, and should not lead to debt burden upon countries. Human connectivity is also important, since the knowledge economy requires the flow of talent, which in turn can help the ease of business and the growth of creativity. Digital connectivity can also be an area for India-EU cooperation, since there is a strong convergence on data security, cyber security, and data privacy. Addressing the growth of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in recent times, Minister Silva observed that many countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe can benefit from the investments and resources under this initiative. However, with the BRI there is a need to be careful with the level of dependency that is created, and entities like the EU must work on providing alternatives to such initiatives. With the dangers posed to the world through climate change, green investment and green infrastructure are essential for adhering to the Paris Agreement targets. EU can be an important partner to India in this area, and provide resources, technical knowhow, and capabilities to enable India to realise its climate action targets. The most pressing issue facing the world today is the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Indian and South African proposal for intellectual property rights waiver is an important means to scale up vaccine production. The EU is philosophically in favour of intellectual property rights, and feels that they help maintain an ecosystem of research, which can innovate on products to tackle new mutations and strains of the disease. The EU believes that waiving intellectual property rights is a last resort solution, but is open to discussing this option. Speaking on the Indian position, Minister Jaishankar opined that without dramatically raising vaccine production levels, it will be difficult to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. Since Europe is key to solving this problem, he hoped that the Global South will be joined by the enlightened North in ensuring vaccine equity. Finally, with larger structural and systemic changes taking place in the global order, Minister Jaishankar and Minister Silva agreed upon the salience of the India-EU relationship. By enhancing political, economic, security, maritime, and defence cooperation, India and the EU can upgrade the dialogue between the two largest democracies in the world. With the rise of multipolarity, a ‘triangulation’ between India, EU, the UK and the US can provide a novel arrangement to address this reality—while continuing to protect core democratic values. In this changing world order with changing rules, a new ‘compact’ with suitable norms and frameworks can be searched for to provide renewed impetus to the India-EU relationship.
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