EU-India relations: time to ‘start over'

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Brussels for the EU-India summit on 30th March is good news. If both sides play their cards right, the summit could pave the way for a more ambitious, dynamic and adventurous EU-India relationship.

India and the EU need a new conversation, a new focus on shared interests as well as new goals and ambitions. Above all, they need to take a fresh look at each other, replacing tired misperceptions and clichés. The summit should come up with a new EU-India action plan which is short, snappy and action-oriented.

With growth rates of 7.5% according to the World Bank, India now has a more dynamic economy than China. The EU, for all its current malaise, has an interest in exporting and investing more in India and has the technology India needs for its modernisation drive. Above all, opening a new chapter in relations means moving to a ‘beyond trade’ agenda.

“India now has a more dynamic economy than China”

Modi’s high-profile visits to Britain, France and Germany show his focus on national European governments over contacts with the EU. Meanwhile, Europe has spent more time and energy on building a strategy for China than on constructing a stronger relationship with India.

Now it’s time for a more serious conversation on refugees, peace and security in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Terrorism and the threat from ISIS are a common concern. In other areas, the focus must shift to a more practical, pragmatic and operational agenda which seeks to find common ground between Modi’s aspirational modernisation drive and EU initiatives to boost growth and jobs.

India’s new economic programme opens up fresh avenues for increased EU-India synergies that go beyond the two sides’ traditional interaction. This could include cooperation in areas where both sides have a strong economic interest such as infrastructure investments, sustainable urbanisation, renewable energy, innovation and synergies between “Digital India” and the EU’s agenda for a Digital Single Market.

Still, trade matters and negotiations on the Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) or free trade agreement, under negotiation since 2007, need to restart. If some of the key blockages that brought the talks to a grinding halt in 2013 can be removed in time, the 30th March summit could mark the relaunch of the BTIA negotiations.

“Opening a new chapter in relations means moving to a ‘beyond trade’ agenda”

So far, however, the talks have been like an unending obstacle race, with new problems emerging at every twist and turn. The EU wants a reduction in India’s tariffs on cars, wines and spirits and a stronger regime for the protection of intellectual property. India is unhappy about EU restrictions on temporary movement of skilled professionals and wants data security status so that the thriving IT sector can do more business with European firms.

Such horse-trading is important and Modi and his EU counterparts must give the trade negotiations a much-needed push. But, as John Lennon sang to Yoko Ono all those years ago, having allowed their relationship to stumble and falter, it’s time that India and the EU agreed to start over.

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