The summit’s headline-hogging outcome was the joint announcement on the resumption of long-dragging negotiations for FTA and two allied pacts an EU-India investment protection and on Geographic Indication.
Transformational diplomacy acquired a new resonance as India, despite grappling with a rampaging pandemic, took a quantum leap of faith and transformed its relations with the 27-nation European Union at a virtual leader’s summit on 8 May.
In a unique gesture that underscored the rising importance of India in the EU’s foreign policy calculus, the Leaders’ Meeting was the first-ever summit between the two largest democratic spaces in the 27+ 1 format—the second time the EU had such a 27+1 summit with any country after the US. The optics were captivating: Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a virtual face-to-face interaction with leaders of 27 nations as well as Charles Michel, President of the European Council, and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. In a show of confidence in India, the EU top brass and leaders found time to be in the Portuguese port city Porto, which was lit up in the colours of the Indian flag. The virtual interaction lasted for over two hours and was marked by camaraderie, good humour and deep solidarity with India, which has been reeling under a severe second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. There were also emotive gestures—Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo greeted PM Modi with “Khem Cho” in Gujarati and Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, in the presence of all EU leaders, proudly flaunted his OCI card (Overseas Citizen of India).
It wasn’t just spectacle and convivial virtual chatter though, but the summit resulted in a string of defining steps that’s going to scale up India-EU ties to a higher stratosphere. This 2.0 version of the India-EU strategic partnership will include, among others, a transformational and balanced FTA, enhanced international coordination and a landmark connectivity partnership that involves partnering in joint infrastructure projects in third countries. The summit’s other key outcomes included setting up of a task force on artificial intelligence and a joint working group on resilient supply chains.
WEB OF PROSPERITY
The summit’s headline-hogging outcome was the joint announcement on the resumption of long-dragging negotiations for Free Trade Area (FTA) and two allied pacts an EU-India investment protection and on Geographic Indication. The resumption of FTA negotiations, which is expected to happen soon, will mark the end of a thousand visions and revisions that had marked negotiations between 2007 and 2013, followed by an eight-year pause in negotiations. This was the big-ticket outcome India has had been waiting for, as anything else than the resumption of FTA would have made the 8 May summit a damp squib—another ritualistic exercise in diplomatese. Both sides have high stakes in the successful conclusion of FTA negotiations, which when completed will bring India and the EU, with a combined GDP of over $21 trillion in an interlocking economic partnership with enhanced market access.
Going forward, the EU is expected to pitch hard for lowering of duties on wine and high-end luxury cars. India, on its part, will be eying concessions on mobility of professionals and the grant of a data-secure status. One can expect intense hard-fought negotiations in all these areas, but once the game of give-and-take is over, there will be something for both sides to flaunt and toast, with choicest European wines. In vinos veritas, as they say.
Another showpiece outcome of the 8 May digital summit was the unveiling of a landmark India-EU Connectivity Partnership that will have a force multiplier effect on the larger strategic and economic partnership. The joint connectivity projects will encompass digital, energy, transport and people-to-people connectivity and will be animated by transparency, rule of law, fiscal and environmental transparency.
The connectivity partnership sends a larger message across that the two sides will be finally walking the talk to build tangible physical connectivity and infrastructure partnerships in Africa, Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific. Now, different regions will get to see and feel the beneficial impact of the India-EU partnership. These connectivity projects, after they fructify, will provide more content and visibility to the India-EU partnership across geographies.
China is clearly the subtext in this ambitious India-EU connectivity calculus. There is a conscious design to position the India-EU connectivity paradigm as an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is accused of imposing onerous debt burdens on beneficiary countries. The template outlined in the stand-alone document seeks to brand and distinguish it from BRI as it underlines that the India-EU connectivity partnership will be animated by social, economic, fiscal, climate and environmental sustainability, as well as transparency, viability, good governance, and ensuring a level playing field for economic operators. The two sides are, however, keen not to project it as an anti-China containment plan due to their own respective sensitive relationship with China.
The connectivity paradigm dovetails with the India-EU plans for enhancing strategic cooperation in shaping “a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific space.” In a message to China, India and the EU pledged to promote an Indo-Pacific, which will be “underpinned by respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, democracy, and rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation and overflight.” There will be more clarity on how New Delhi and Brussels match their steps in the Indo-Pacific after the EU Commission unveils its Indo-Pacific strategy later this year. But what is clear now is that the EU will also be an important player in determining the contours of an inclusive and multi-polar Indo-Pacific, which in turn could help moderate China’s assertiveness on the region.
THE ROAD AHEAD
For New Delhi, the overarching priority currently is controlling the deepening Covid crisis by mobilising its resources domestically and marshalling diplomatic support and international assistance. In this regard, the EU’s spontaneous support for India stands out—nearly 20 EU countries have sent oxygen concentrators, cylinders and medical equipment to India in special flights which are estimated to be over $100 million. But when all is said and done, the real story of the 8 May India-EU summit was in genuine sentiments of solidarity and goodwill expressed by all EU leaders for India as it pulls out all stops to defeat the deadly second wave of the pandemic. Officials who were in the virtual meeting room were struck by optimism among EU leaders and their soaring faith in the India growth story. French President Emmanuel Macron silenced sceptics by asserting that India does not need to be “lectured from anyone” on vaccine supplies. Responding to PM Modi’s request, the EU leaders agreed to not only shore up India’s capacity for production of anti-Covid vaccines, but also agreed to keep an open mind on an India-South Africa proposal TRIPs waiver for vaccines. It’s not clear yet whether the EU will support the TRIPS waiver, but the logic of the India-EU 2.0 partnerships suggests that Brussels will eventually relent.
Looking ahead, the 8 May summit will go down in history as a pivotal moment that has raised the bar for scaling up India-EU coordination to new heights. The burgeoning partnership between the two normative powers dedicated to promoting rules-based international order will not only benefit over 1.8 billion people living in India and EU countries, but also the region and the world.
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO of India Writes Network and India and The World.