When will the EU show up on India’s radar screens?

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Series Details Vol.12, No.7, 23.2.06
Publication Date 23/02/2006
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In recent years all eyes have been on China but India has started to emerge from its Asian neighbour's shadow.

India has been growing at 8% a year and on current projections it will be the third economic power in the world - after the US and China - by the middle of the century. But it is by no means certain that India can maintain these spectacular growth rates without further painful reforms. According to Indian analysts there is still too much protectionism, corruption, lack of quality education and an outdated infrastructure that puts off many foreign investors. Almost half of India's one billion plus population live on less than 2 euro a day and have no electricity. Poor education, health care and infrastructure affect all of India but especially the rural population. China has proved much more adept at harnessing rural manpower for industrial development than India.

Nevertheless the EU seems to be banking on India's potential and has signed a strategic partnership with the world's largest democracy. At the EU-India summit in Delhi last September UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Jos´┐Żanuel Barroso praised India's impressive development and stressed the need for the EU and India to engage more with each other. The EU leaders noted that the relationship with India was far behind those with Japan and China, the EU's other strategic partners in Asia.

The EU is already India's largest trading partner with two-way trade last year amounting to 40 billion euro - a fifth of EU-China trade. The EU is also the main provider of development aid and foreign direct investment to India. But there is very little appreciation of the EU as a political or security actor. Unlike with China, the EU has found it difficult to engage India in a serious dialogue on strategic issues.

The EU-India declaration commits both sides to a comprehensive dialogue on issues ranging from terrorism and non-proliferation to human rights and the environment. The accompanying Action Plan notes 35 areas for deepening co-operation including strengthening the multilateral system, satellite navigation (Galileo), scientific research, the environment and educational exchange. But so far the nascent dialogue has exposed as many differences as areas of agreement between the two sides.

Security policy is a good example. The continuing emphasis on hard security by India's elite is explained as being due to India's problems with its neighbours, notably Pakistan, China, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Delhi planners all agree that, in light of such a troubled neighbourhood, India must continue to maintain a strong military.

In terms of the UN, India has pushed hard for a permanent seat on the Security Council but given EU divisions on that subject, it has not been able to support India. Nor has the EU been able to agree that India should join the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Unlike the US, some EU member states have not forgiven India for going nuclear. With some misgivings India signed up for the 'responsibility to protect' principle and the new human rights council at the UN. But India will always put its national interests first. For example, it needs the co-operation of the military junta in Rangoon to deal with the smuggling of small arms and drugs across the 3,000 kilometre border it shares with Myanmar. Contrary to the EU, Delhi believes that it can best influence the authorities in Rangoon through a policy of engagement rather than isolation.

India is suspicious of the EU's crusade to promote democracy and human rights around the world and resents MEPs poking their noses into Kashmir. India sees no reason to push democracy on unwilling neighbours. Unlike the EU, it has little interest in human or soft security. India has noted increasing EU activity with its neighbours in South Asia and would like to be consulted as a privileged partner before the EU takes any new initiatives. India would also like to be consulted by the EU on the Middle East and Central Asia. It considers that it has some lessons to offer the EU on how to run a peaceful, multicultural society. Migration, terrorism and energy are other themes at the top of India's wish-list. Indian planners regret the absence in the action plan of any military dialogue (unlike China). On the trade front, India resents the EU's textile quotas and there are continuing disagreements on how to bring the Doha Round to a successful conclusion. The Indian press has also!

been critical of what they see as scarcely veiled racist European reactions to an Indian tycoon's bid for the Arcelor steel company.

One of the key problems in the EU-Indian relationship is the lack of knowledge in India about the EU. Europe is still viewed primarily through the prism of the largest member states, especially the UK. At the September summit with Blair and Barroso, newspaper readers could be forgiven for thinking it had been an Anglo-Indian affair. Indians respond that the EU does not appear on their radar screens as a political and security actor. The visit of French President Jacque Chirac this week has scarcely raised a ripple of interest.

There are no quick fixes on this front. More visits by European commissioners might help. In 2005, 15 visited China and only two made it to India.

A strategic partnership depends on common values and interests, is for the long term and can withstand ups and downs in the relationship. It also implies some co-ordination before major decisions and a high level of interaction.

The EU-India relationship has a long way to go before it can properly be termed strategic.

  • Fraser Cameron is senior policy advisor at the European Policy Centre. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Commentary feature on the European Union's relations with India, which according to the author were lagging way behind those with China.

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EEAS: Countries: India http://www.eeas.europa.eu/india/index_en.htm

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