The EU-India strategic partnership: Are we there yet?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A free trade area rather than a strategic partnership is what the EU needs with India, writes Gauri Khandekar for Madrid-based think-tank FRIDE.

The following contribution was sent to EURACTIV by FRIDE.

"As the year draws to an end, the European Union needs to reflect on what it wants from its partners in 2011. India, for example, is a key strategic partner. The 'emerged' Asian giant, as [US] President [Barack] Obama so famously proclaimed, is of immense strategic interest to the EU, be it in terms of trade, security or multilateralism.

But has this been reflected in the so-called strategic partnership yet? For a relationship that is chiefly based on – and develops around – summits, last week's eleventh EU-India summit was more of a parsimonious show on developments or deliverables than a strategic meeting.

The summit registered rather soft tangibles for a 'dynamic' partnership, which left observers wondering what does indeed make for a strategic partnership. A free trade agreement with India for one would have definitely clinched a place for Europe in the dynamic rise of Asia.

The EU has served as a playground for the vanity of many a member state with priorities changing each summit according to national interests, thanks to the now passé 'rotating presidency'. Last year we were quite keen on green (Sweden).

This time, we can only be hopeful that the Council has drawn up a clear list of lasting priorities that can be built upon. Key foci of this year's summit were security (counter-terrorism, anti-piracy), trade (FTA, WTO, Doha), regional issues (mainly Afghanistan, Pakistan), and reform of international organisations: obvious priorities for both partners with little attention to the development side of the partnership, a traditional mainstay.

One of the main outcomes of the summit was an EU-India Joint Declaration on International Terrorism, which envisages greater legal and police cooperation, but doesn't read much into concrete intelligence sharing.

Security-wise, India is of vital importance to the EU. Collaboration picked up between the two sides since the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Both also agreed to investigate the prospect of an EU-India Mutual Legal Assistance Agreement and an EU-India Agreement on Extradition.

But these developments must be seen in the light of the fact that EU-India security dialogues are held approximately only once per year with just a handful of security-oriented meetings.

Notwithstanding challenging political climes back in India, the event managed to register the presence of the apexes of Indian leadership, including [Prime Minister Manmohan] Singh. Nonetheless, the summit didn't see any miraculous breakthroughs on the much awaited free-trade agreement, despite India's newly elevated position as the EU's ninth largest trading partner.

The FTA, an unprecedented agreement associating over a quarter of humanity if concluded, will indubitably portray the true essence of a strategic partnership. Now estimated for signature in spring 2011, the FTA would unquestionably add the needed impetus and change dynamics.

However, the Lisbon Treaty will be instrumental to the future of the relationship itself, depending on how the European External Action Service evolves, and given the European Parliament's enhanced role in decision-making, especially as regards FTAs. Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma has for the moment reiterated India's firm rejection of any EU requests to include environment and social clauses in the FTA itself, a position staunchly defended by the European Parliament.

This summit, India was instead the one to assert herself confidently in expressing inhibitions about the EU's engagement with neighbouring Pakistan, especially vis-à-vis EU aid which India considers is being misused to sponsor terrorism. India also voiced concerns about the EU's tariff waiver to Pakistan, which is set to enter into force on 1 January 2011. Both partners then firmly called on Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to book.

This year, the summit was also instrumental in exhibiting the competition the EU faces from its own member states in wooing emerging India. [French] President [Nicolas] Sarkozy was in India only a couple of days prior to the EU-India summit to sign key deals on space and civil nuclear cooperation, an area of vast opportunities which the EU has been politically forbidden to enter into with India given divergent member-state interests. More importantly, the EU-India summit was held on the same day as the India-Belgium summit, and PM Singh was later invited to Germany by Chancellor [Angela] Merkel.

In comparison to other global courters of India too, the EU's list of deliverables has fallen shy of its political ambitions. President Obama's recent visit to India saw agreements in a plethora of areas of mutual and India-specific interests, including unprecedented US support for an Indian permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, which was then hailed in India as a political victory. The EU has yet to concur to India's long-standing demand for UNSC reforms.

It is really either now or never to truly tap into the full potential of a vibrant partnership, and the fastest way is indeed through a successful comprehensive FTA."

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