A new EU strategy for India released last year spotlights Europe’s rising interest in India and hopes for increased cooperation. The blueprint is aspirational and ambitious – if Europe and India can work together on even a third of the areas outlined by Brussels, relations would take a giant stride forward.
Here’s my take on what Brussels and Delhi should focus on as outlined at an EU-India Think Tanks meeting held in Delhi on January 8, a side event of the massive Raisina Dialogue.
One piece of advice on the bilateral front: ditch the painful, long and frustrating process of trying to negotiate a free trade deal known as the Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement. The talks have been going on for 12 years, creating acrimony and poisoning the overall relationship. It’s time to move on.
Instead, focus on clinching an “easier” agreement on protecting and promoting two-way investments. Focus also on opening up the rapidly growing services sector. The fact is that the growth in EU-India trade in goods isn’t dependent on a free trade agreement, but on how attractive European and Indian businesses think each others’ markets are.
FTAs aren’t getting any easier to negotiate and conclude – and both Europe and India have made a long list of demands which are being resisted by the other. The increase in anti-globalisation sentiment in both Europe and India is another important obstacle.
Four suggestions on what the EU and India can do together on the multilateral front:
First, start walking the talk on reforming global governance. US President Donald Trump’s retreat from America’s international commitments has dealt a strong blow to the multilateral rules-based order – but the blow need not be a fatal one.
Europe can work with Asian countries – like-minded and unlike-minded – to salvage and reform parts of the multilateral system which have served everyone so well for the last 70 years.
Start with the World Trade Organisation and specifically with reform of the Appellate Body and the Dispute Settlement Mechanism. Good proposals have been put in by the EU – they could form the basis of a revamped and more inclusive global trade system.
Second, multilateralise ongoing national and regional discussions on connectivity. The need for more and better infrastructure is universally recognised. And although it gets the most attention, China’s Belt and Road Initiative isn’t the only connectivity show in town – although it is the most visible and financially hefty one.
Others – including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – have been in the game for many more years. Japan, India and Europe have a similar interest in increasing connectivity. But all these projects operate under different rules and standards, leaving many countries confused and unsure.
The EU’s recently-released strategy for Euro-Asian connectivity fills the governance and regulatory gap by setting out a comprehensive list of standards for transparency and sustainability which should be the required of all connectivity projects. As such, it can be used a rulebook for an international consensus on connectivity, providing many countries with a desperately-needed toolkit when negotiating infrastructure projects with China and others.
Third, India and the EU should join forces to implement Agenda 2030, with a special focus on eliminating inequality through an intensified focus on girls’ education.
Fourth, Europe and Asian countries should pay more attention to ASEM, the platform for Asia Europe Meetings, set up in 1996 to enhance EU-Asia relations. The successful ASEM summit held in Brussels in October 2018 is testimony to the fact that the forum is increasingly relevant given current geopolitical transformations.
The list above is by no means exhaustive. Europe and India – and Europe with other Asian countries – can do much more together on the bilateral and multilateral level.
Enhanced EU-Asian cooperation will require a change in mindsets in both regions. Old-fashioned and out-dated concepts and stereotyping will have to change on both sides, replaced by a new, more inclusive approach.
There will have to be uncomfortable compromises, more give and take, more listening to each other, less talking past each other.
The new “re-order” will be patchy, incomplete, more transactional. Coalitions will be built more around issues, less around values.
Finally, while many dream of Eurasia, others are afraid of it. Whether we like it or not, increased integration between the two regions is taking place. US President Donald Trump has unknowingly accelerated the process.
One day, we’ll look back and say “thank you”.