Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2017 > Fourteenth India-European Union Summit: Whither the Strategic (...)

Mainstream, VOL LV No 44 New Delhi October 21, 2017

Fourteenth India-European Union Summit: Whither the Strategic Partnership?

Monday 23 October 2017


by Purusottam Bhattacharya

The Fourteenth India-European Union (EU) Summit was held in New Delhi on October 6, 2017 as part of the annual summit between the two sides that is organised alternately in India and Europe. These summits are being held since the India-EU strategic partnership was estab-lished in 2004. As a matter of protocol the EU side is led by the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission and the Indian side is led by the Prime Minister and his team of advisers comprising representatives from the Ministry of External Affairs and various other Ministries concerned with the partnership with the EU. This time the EU side was led by the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, and the President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the Indian delegation.

Notwithstanding the absence of a glamour quotient in the India-EU partnership—at least in the eyes of the foreign policy elite in India— the ties between New Delhi and Brussels (the headquarters of the EU) have always been recognised by the cognoscenti as one of the principal planks of India’s foreign relations for over four decades. It was the British decision to join the then European Community in 1961 which acted as a catalyst in the evolution of a multifaceted relationship between the EU and India over the next five-and-a-half decades. While a detailed narrative of the development of this partnership is not in the purview of this brief commentary, a snapshot of these ties will set the background for an evaluation of the present scenario. The evolution of this relationship till 2004 was primarily in the nature of economic and commercial ties taking into consideration the fact that the EU is a customs union providing for free movement of people, goods, services and capital within the Union with a single market, a single currency and a common external tariff that is applied to the products of non-EU states entering the Union. The very nature of the EU customs union, which encouraged unfettered trade among its member-states but was discriminatory to the entry of products from non-EU countries, was a handicap from India’s point of view in increasing exports to the countries forming the Union to the extent preferred by New Delhi, notwithstanding its status as a developing country. (An EU official told this writer way back in 1986 in Brussels that the EU did not view India as a developing country so far as market access was concerned.)

Despite this handicap, a framework for co-operation between the two sides evolved through a succession of agreements which provided the much-needed thrust for the development and strengthening of the nascent ties between New Delhi and Brussels. The phenomenal growth in trade and investments since 1973 (when Britain, which had been the principal market for India in Western Europe, joined the EU), and especially after India’s economic liberalisation in the 1990s, bore testimony to a newly acquired dynamism. (With more than Euro 100 billion trade in goods and services, the EU, as a collective entity, is India’s largest trading partner. In terms of investments it has been estimated that between 2004 and 2013 European companies invested more than Euro 198 billion in India; during the same period Indian companies invested more than Euro 50 billion in Europe.)

The rapidly strengthening economic and commercial relationship provided the bedrock for the further maturing of the partnership since the turn of the century. Following the launch of the EU-India Strategic Partnership in 2004, the Joint Action Plan in 2005 and the start of negotiations for a Broad-Based Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) in 2007 (which still remains unrealised), the partnership seemed to be poised to scale new heights as both sides expressed much enthusiasm. In fact there was reason for optimism as the relationship held out the promise of moving beyond economics encompassing not only greater trade but also increasing investments in both directions, transfer of technology, an active EU role in India’s development programme and, most importantly, on developing co-operation in the security field in the light of the 2010 bilateral declaration on International Terrorism; migration and mobility issues; implementation of the joint work programme on energy, clean development and climate change adopted at the 2008 summit and reinforced by a joint declaration for enhanced co-operation on energy in 2012. (Gulshan Sachdeva: 2017: 8)

During the period 2009 and 2014, the relation-ship however lost momentum. The factors that contributed to such a trend included a deadlock in trade negotiations, the global recession of 2008-09, the Eurozone crisis and a policy paralysis during UPA II. A change of leadership in India in 2014 (despite the newly-installed Modi Government’s professed emphasis on Asia, especially its ‘Act East Policy’) led to the emergence of a new possibility to breathe new life in the India-EU bilateral relations. The NDA Government under Narendra Modi adopted a fresh approach to economic and development issues which became a priority within the Indian Government’s foreign policy and it was hoped that the EU could become a focus area of engagement for India. As the Government of India announced several new development initiatives such as ‘Make in India’, ‘Clean India’, ‘Digital India’, ‘100 Smart Cities’ and ‘Clean Ganges’, it is hoped that member-states of the EU can become significant partners and contributors to these programmes. As a result of these developments some momentum is back in India-EU ties.

The Thirteenth India-EU summit, held in Brussels in March 2016, chalked out an ambitious agenda titled ‘Agenda for Action 2020’ for the partnership which included trade and investment, energy and climate, water, migration and co-operation in foreign and security policy in areas of mutual interest such as Asia (including West Asia), Africa and Europe. The two sides also agreed to strengthen co-operation on non-proliferation and disarmament, counter-piracy, counter-terrorism (including counter-radicalisation) and cyber security; sharing information between EUROPOL and Indian agencies; promoting maritime security, peace- keeping, peace-building, post-conflict assistance, and fight against transnational organised crime. Both also reaffirmed their commitment to the bilateral human rights dialogue. (Gulshan Sachdeva: 2017: 8)

Bilateral relations with key EU member-states have also progressed further in recent times. There are bilateral strategic partnerships between India on the one hand and France, Germany and the United Kingdom on the other. In the last three years Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made bilateral visits to Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the UK. In fact the history of the India-EU relationship over the past several decades has been overshadowed by the Indian preference to deal with individual partners like France, Germany and the UK rather than Brussels which has been some sort of an enigma for the Indian bureaucracy. However, with the prospective British withdrawal from the EU (Brexit), Europe is closing ranks and Brussels will probably have a larger role with Germany and France in the drivers’ seat and India is likely to pay greater attention to Europe. These visits and meetings, both at the bilateral and India-EU level, have brought Europe back to the Indian foreign policy agenda which was somehow missing for some time. (Gulshan Sachdeva: 2017: 8; The Times of India: June 3, 2017)

However, in spite of a firm foundation for a bilateral trade and investment regime, the prospects for a Broad-Based Trade and Invest-ment Agreement (BTIA), negotiations for which started in 2007, have proved to be illusory. After twelve formal rounds and several technical meetings, the negotiations virtually ran aground in 2013 due to what the European Commission called ‘a mismatch of the level of ambitions’. Though some discussions resumed in 2016 there are no clear indicators that India is in a mood to start these negotiations in a hurry. Brexit has further queered the pitch as no side is prepared to explore BTIA further until a clear picture emerges with regard to the final deal between the UK and EU. The complexities involved in the BTIA negotiations are enormous with high stakes on both sides and it is outside the purview of this commentary to deal with these issues. (The sensitive nature of the BTIA was conceded by Donald Tusk in an interview prior to the summit meeting when he said that the “EU remains committed to an ambitious and comprehensive trade agreement with India which should be mutually beneficial and acceptable to our respective constituencies. As trade contributes to creating wealth and jobs, EU will keep markets open, fight protectionism and actively promote an ambitious free and fair global trade agenda.”) (Gulshan Sachdeva: 2017: 9; Purusottam Bhattacharya: 2017: 37-41; The Times of India: October 6, 2017)

Such is the background for the Fourteenth Summit meeting in New Delhi on October 6, 2017. In an interview prior to the meeting the European Council President Donald Tusk was frank enough to concede that the ultimate goal is to have a ‘strong’ strategic partnership (even 13 years after its existence) enhancing ‘both’ geo-strategic relations and economic co-operation. In response to a question that there seems to be little progress in relations, Tusk emphasised three areas which could provide a concrete basis for further engagement— climate change, counter-terrorism and urbanisation. On climate change India and the EU—apparently on the same page—has to take the lead on implementing the Paris Agreement. On counter-terrorism (Europe is one of the worst victims of terrorist onslaughts in recent times and so is India) the two sides have a common interest in working together. On urbanisation the EU intends to link its urban agenda with India’s ‘100 Smart Cities Mission’ including direct investment in infrastructure via the European Investment Bank which has already invested in the Lucknow metro project and is going to support the Bengaluru metro phase-II. (The Times of India: October 6, 2017)

The summit itself, in the words of both sides, was productive and fruitful as reflected in the Joint Statements issued by the two sides after the meetings. (For details, see the European Commission Press Release as well as the Statement by the Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Prime Minister’s Office) However, for both India and the EU—both victims of terrorist onslaughts—the real takeaway was the ‘Joint Statement on Co-operation in Combating Terrorism’ adopted with a view to deepening their strategic and security co-operation. The two sides expressed strong commitment to combat terrorism “in all its forms and manifestations, based on a compre-hensive approach”. The statement condemned terror attacks across the world including those in India and Europe by various outfits operating across continents. (The Times of India: October 7, 2017)

Donald Tusk was confident that Brexit has made EU 27 more determined in a sense that the Union is a common European future and it swill only strengthen the European determination to speak with one voice and reap the benefits of world markets and global co-operation. The EU’s external actions and responsibilities will not be affected before, during and after the departure of the UK. Indeed there are new areas of co-operation for the EU and India to explore. Sharing of digital ambitions, space exploration, peacekeeping in Africa and elsewhere, maritime security and the challenges of global migration are some of the areas where the two sides can work together. Particular mention must be made of the success of the EU’s Erasmus+ programme, which is the world’s greatest mobility progr-amme for students and youth; it is of 30 years duration and has just celebrated its 5000th Indian alumnus. (The Times of India: October 6, 2017).

In conclusion, it may be worthwhile to quote another expert on India-EU relations. In spite of working together after 13 summits (excluding the latest one) the “rhetoric, however, continues to be strong. Despite shared values, the lack of shared interests on a number of issues continues to limit co-operation. India and the EU have many common interests, but transforming them into co-ordinated policies has been rather elusive. Despite the ongoing dialogue and consultations between India and the EU on 35 or so issues, Brussels and the member-states complain that they encounter problems of capacity and resources of India’s Ministry of External Affairs. There is greater recognition of the need to focus on a smaller number of long-term strategic priorities rather than cluttering the agenda.” (Rajendra K. Jain: 2017: 19) In the ultimate analysis both sides must recognise each other’s strengths and weaknesses and seek to find hard, practical common grounds for effective co-operation which is mutually beneficial and shorn of vacuous rhetoric. That is the challenge of this partnership which, according to some experts, is yet to achieve truly strategic dimensions.


Purusottam Bhattacharya (1994), Britain in the European Community: Implications for Domestic Politics and Foreign Relations. New Delhi/Calcutta.

Purusottam Bhattacharya, ”Brexit: Britain’s European Odyssey- Hubris or Nemesis?”. World Focus, August, 2017.

Gulshan Sachdeva (2017), “Developments in Europe and India-EU Relations”, World Focus, August.

Rajendra K. Jain (2017), “India and European Union: Perceptions, Narratives and Prospects”, World Focus, August.

The Times of India, October 6 and 7, 2017.

Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya is a former Professor and Head, Department of International Relations and erstwhile Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.