Author: Yukta Kher


Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, the 15th India-EU Summit was held virtually on July 15th, 2020, wherein India was represented by Prime Minister ShriNarendraModi, and the EU was represented by Mr. Charles Michel, President of the European Council, and Ms. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. This event also marked the 20th anniversary of the first summit of EU and India, which was held in the year 2000 in Lisbon.

India and EU have often been referred to as ‘natural partners’for sharing several common values. This was also reiterated in the form of a declaration to strengthen partnership “based on shared principles and values of democracy, freedom, rule of law, and respect for human rights”, in the Joint Statement issued post the Summit. However, in several global governance forums held previously, they have also had a significant clash of opinions which has triggered critical responses about the partnership being like ‘a loveless arranged marriage’.

Nevertheless, despite the differences, India and EU have traditionally maintained good relations, and their partnership has immense potential for jointly contributing to “a safer, cleaner and more stable world”, which was also declared in the report EU-India Strategic Partnership: A Roadmap to 2025.

Economic Cooperation

Since its commencement, the India-EU bilateral relationship has been monopolized by trade. The Indo-EU bilateral trade was US$104.3 billion in the financial year 2018-19. Currently, India is EU’s 9th largest trading partner with 2.4% of the EU’s overall trade.

In 2007, India and EU entered into negotiations on a Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) which proposed to encompass trade in goods, services and investment, but had faced an impasse since 2013because of fluctuations in their trade relations, differences on market access, irregularities in India-EU Summits and the Brexit.

The EU wants India to reduce its tariffs for automobiles and wines, and has also pushed for increased market access in the services sector. India has also demanded for greater access to the EU markets and freedom of movement for its professionals in Europe.

On that account, an agreement to launch a high-level trade dialogue that “will aim at fostering progress on the trade and investment agreements, addressing trade irritants and improving conditions for traders and investors on both sides as well as discuss supply chain linkages” was one of the most important deliverables of the Summit. It is imperative to eliminate the bottlenecks that have insinuated into India-EU trade relations since the past 7 years. In order to find a coherent negotiation and reach an ambitious trade agreement, it would, without doubt, require both India and EU to be willing to make certain compromises, take lead and show commitment towards their participation in this exercise.

Most sides must reflect on their domestic institutions. India needs to become more enthusiastic about an agreement with EU since RCEP looks like a point of no return. The EU needs to encourage member states to ease out the formalities so that India does not find it difficult to understand the European foreign policy and does not get irked for carrying out 27 different negotiations. Efforts must be made to prevent the contrasting diplomatic capacities and institutional set-ups from becoming impedance to the exercise.

Ambassador Rakesh Sood writes, “Keeping negotiations at an impasse creates an illusion but the reality is different. Both sides need to display political leadership and commitment to get the relationship out of this morass. If a BTIA is not considered possible then the infructuous exercise should be terminated and more modest agreements salvaged in areas where it is possible.”

Foreign Policy and Security Cooperation

India has always considered EU has an important partner on security and defence issues, and vice versa. This is because of the fact that both share similar articulation of threat perceptions and views on risks egressing from terrorism, migration, cyber security, and maritime security.

At an India-EU Summit (2010), terrorism as a main threat was stressed upon by the Joint Declaration, but this again faced several challenges as EU lacked central authority on this issue and several Indian ministers objected to the creation of National Counter Terrorism. EU also demonstrates keen interest in securing the keylines of communication in the Indian Ocean. In 2008, the EU launched ‘Operation Atalanta’, formally called ‘European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) Somalia’, to prevent and combat acts of piracy in the Indian ocean, but there was no conspicuous collaboration between the different navies, and India was more interested in dealing with political instability in the region rather than anti-piracy.

In the Summit, the two sides decided to scale up their defence and security ties by launching a new maritime security dialogue, deepening cooperation between the Indian Navy and the EU Naval Force Atalanta for EU’s counter-piracy military operations in the Indian Ocean. Another noteworthy deliverable was to “conclude and implement a working arrangement between Europol and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)” to combat organised crime and terrorism.

The main challenge ahead lies in the fact that both India and the EU are relatively weak actors in the international arena. Even after the Treaty of Lisbon and the creation of new institutions like the EEAS, the foreign policy of EU is shared between Brussels and its member states, which leaves it weak in many security issues as they fall in the jurisdiction of the national capitals to deal with.

Democracy and Human Rights

Both India and EU have frequently acknowledged their shared commitment to human rights and plural society, and common values like democracy. In unprecedented times like these, it becomes even more imperative and significant to consider and contemplate over these values.

Furthermore, India and EU have also reiterated their shared commitment to human rights in all spheres of life through “EU-India Human Rights Dialogue as a key tool to promote shared values of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and convene regular meetings to forge mutual understanding and discuss human rights issues – including women’s rights and empowerment and child rights”, which again are crucial goals, especially in these uncertain times.

It is important to note here that despite sharing common values and being ‘natural partners’, the relations between the two will continue to be productive and challenging simultaneously. The fundamental reason behind this is that the EU is not a state like India, it is an entity sui generis, which has different forms of multi-level governance, i.e., the European Commission and the 28 member states deal with foreign relations depending on respective field policy.

Moreover, even though they share common democratic values, their historical settings are extremely different. The European integration process was legal with constant interference into the realms of national sovereignty, while India’s history after 1947 was represented by concepts like self-reliance and scepticism to foreign intervention.

The partnership will thrive only if the two groups comprehend the institutional and structural restrictions of each side, and then come up with practical expectations and goals to achieve together.

It is also important to consider here that the European solidarity was heavily tested during the pandemic. On one hand, Ambassador RakeshSood writes, “Instead of the old response of ‘more Europe’, member states reacted by putting up walls going against the fundamental tenets of free movement of goods, services, capital and people. This has forced EU leaders to undertake serious introspection about its internal divisions, between ‘old Europe’ and ‘new Europe’, between liberal democracies and ‘illiberal’ democracies, and between the ‘frugal states’ and the weaker economies.”

On the other hand, Stephania Benaglia (Expert on EU Foreign and Security Policy) writes, “The “Next generation EU proposal” submitted by the European Commission has surprised many by its bold approach. This is indeed a game-changer, not only in its financial implications — as it allows the EU to take on debt — but because it shows that the ties that bind the EU extend well beyond treaties and individual members’ self-interest.”

Hence, there’s a need for deeper contemplation on how, based on shared democratic values, can the leaders cooperate ‘effectively’ mitigate the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic.

Sustainable Modernization Partnership

Another area of immense potential of partnership between India and EU is science and technology. India is a participant in the European navigation system Galileo and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). EU has also supported the establishment of centres for European Studies in India and Contemporary Indian Studies in Europe.

Both the groups have decided to take their partnership a step further by deciding to converge the regulatory frameworks to ensure data protection and privacy, and cooperate more in the field of cyber security, so as to impact the growing digital economy and redefine security threats, access, economic growth and prosperity.  They will also cooperate in the development of new technologies such as 5G and artificial intelligence to “promote global standards and to foster their safe and ethical deployment.”India has been interested to collaborate with both Nokia and Ericsson in the domain of telecommunications technology, and will definitely not opt for Huawei route. The Indian start-ups can collaborate with EU giants on 5G, and also consider taking ahead their research on 6G as well. Moreover, considering the rise of China, both EU and India now seem to share a common political interest in shaping global norms and standards in the technological domain.

The Joint Statement declares that both the groups will root for sustainable modernization by boosting “cooperation to support clean energy transition, resource efficiency and circular economy, and the necessary technological leaps, while opening new business opportunities.”

Both EU and India consider climate change as a global challenge that must be dealt with. They might not find it easy to cooperate on this issue at multilateral level, however this hasn’t ruled out bilateral cooperation between the two. The Paris Agreement and EU-India Clean Energy and Climate Partnership is the base to further build upon. The two 1will also “reinforce their cooperation in the International Solar Alliance (ISA) to promote the deployment of solar energy, and in the International Platform on Sustainable Finance (IPSF) to mobilise private capital towards environmentally sustainable investments.”

AlenaKudzco (Director, GLOBSEC Policy Institute, Slovakia) writes, “The EU and India can further facilitate the creation of institutions that attract financing to sustainable growth, modelled, for example, on the Green Growth Equity Fund created by the UK and India or private financial initiatives like Tata CleanTech Capital Limited.”

Global Governance and Multilateralism

India and EU share similar goals of their commitment to strengthening the UN, concept of multi-polar world, and multi-lateral institutions for crisis management. The G4 group, which consists of India and Germany, along with Japan and Brazil, is also a manifestation of that. This group aims to increase the number of permanent seats in the UN Security Council.

The challenge lies in the difference in their foreign policy settings. The EU thumps for a rule-based multilateralism that allows interference in internal affairs, while India stands by the principle of national sovereignty and no interference in the domestic matters outside the UN framework. This was observed, for example, when the EU has been critical over the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir as well as the Citizenship Amendment Act, which according to India is an internal matter.But despite the differences, there’s optimism about the fact that a strong partnership would help both EU and India become global decision-makers.

In the Summit, they have yet again declared their commitment to “enhance cooperation in the United Nations and other multilateral fora and establish a regular dialogue on multilateral issues, including on UN reform.”

Cooperation in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific is another interesting area of cooperation and a relatively new construct which suggests that the EU is willing to take partnership with India ambitiously, and that eventually the EU will play a larger part in the Asian affairs.

The Joint Statement further says, “The leaders emphasised the importance of strengthening our preparedness and response capacities, of sharing information in a free, transparent and prompt manner, and of improving international response including through relevant international organisations, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), drawing on lessons learned from the current global responses”, which suggests that the EU is not willing to offer unconditional authority and a blank cheque of support, unlike many other nation-states.

“The EU and India must join forces to promote sustainable reform of multilateral institutions, with the World Trade Organization (WTO) first in line”, writes StephaniaBenaglia.

Initiatives like ‘Alliance for Multilateralism’ (by Germany and France), which is an informal network of countries, including India, that share a commitment to multilateral cooperation, upholding international norms and reforming international institutions, is a manifestation of both EU and India’s common interest in avoiding a bipolarised world and defending the international rule of law. They must use this framework along with other forums like UN and G20 to develop rules-based international order and make international organizations more effective.


If BTIA is put on track and if India becomes ready to collaborate in the field of technology, including 5G and AI, and if both EU and India are willing to make compromises on changing its position on trade, and foster their relationship further based on shared value of democracy, then a strong EU-India partnership in the post-COVID era is attainable.

Amrita Narlikar (President of the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA), and Professor at Hamburg University) writes, “If the two sides want to avoid this pattern from recurring, they need to “own” the fact that business is only one important but small part of their wide-ranging and growing relationship. What makes these two sides “natural partners” are their shared values at a Meta level – democracy and freedom. This narrative must permeate not only all levels of their technocracies and bureaucracies; rather, it needs to be built with, shaped by, and embraced by real people within these two democracies. Because ultimately, the EU-India partnership is not only about profit (which of course matters – and should matter – to both sides); rather, it is about the values that make us who we are.”


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