Online Commentary

May 05, 2021

The EU-India Summit

Why Relations Will Remain At Sea

On May 8, the EU and India will meet at the highest level in a bid to revive their 2004 Strategic Partnership. In recent years, the EU’s geostrategic relationship to India has been largely at sea, focused narrowly on maritime security. The hope is that, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be widened and deepened. But after years of overpromising and underdelivering, it is questionable whether the EU will succeed. The further deepening of maritime cooperation may be where the real potential lies.

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Photo of Charles Michel, President of the European Council, on a video call with Indian Prime Minister Modi and EU Commission President von der Leyen
Charles Michel, President of the European Council, speaks with Indian Prime Minister Modi and European Commission President von der Leyen
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According to Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa, “in foreign policy matters, the jewel in the crown of the Portuguese presidency [of the EU Council] will be the holding of the summit of all European leaders with the prime minister of India.” His turn of phrase last November was unfortunate given both its imperial connotations and the fact that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not due to attend in person. Nevertheless, such rhetoric does at least mark a recognition across Europe that India will play a major role in any policy the EU hopes to implement in the Indo-Pacific, a geopolitical designation that Europeans (and major powers such as the United States) have recently begun to use. The aims of the EU’s policy in the region are, furthermore, becoming clearer. On April 16, the EU followed member states France, Germany, and the Netherlands by producing a strategy for cooperation there.

This can best be described as a probing strategy – less a set of clear goals and means than a process of learning by doing. The strategy comprises a swarm of aspirations that include building multilateralism in the region, ensuring that cross-border connectivity is a source of cooperation rather than leverage, and helping to defuse conflicts before they escalate. If this all sounds rather tentative, it is because the debate in the EU is, in fact, far from settled. The European Commission was long opposed to a strategy on the Indo-Pacific, seeing it as a potential challenge to its own trade links and cooperation formats. And yet the main players in Brussels are increasingly united. They recognize that the EU needs to meld its long-standing geo-economic levers with new geopolitical tools, mixing trade and security initiatives for the first time.

At present, this melding has perhaps occurred most thoroughly in the maritime domain, where the EU helps secure freedom of navigation and worldwide trade flows. In 2018, the EU set itself the goal to “strengthen its ability to cooperate with partners” in “shared maritime spaces and choke points in the global maritime domain, in particular in maritime zones of great strategic interest.” From the Gulf of Aden to the Gulf of Guinea, the EU has steadily strengthened its naval reach and presence. At last year’s EU-India Summit, leaders on both sides endorsed the goal to “establish a maritime security dialogue replacing the counter-piracy dialogue and explore opportunities for further maritime cooperation.” Although the EU was primarily viewed as an economic power in Asia for many years, it is now being taken seriously as a security actor, albeit in the rather narrow maritime sphere.

Three Factors That Could Catalyze Cooperation

Given the strains of the COVID-19 crisis, China’s growing assertiveness, and the EU’s diminished status after Brexit, India has emerged as a bridge to help the EU deepen and widen cooperation in the Indo-Pacific – to move beyond the maritime domain and focus on territorial conflict, physical cross-border infrastructure, and regional multilateral formats that go beyond the kind of “hub and spoke” relations typical of EU naval operations. The EU hopes the crisis will catalyze this cooperation.

The COVID-19 pandemic will, for instance, feature heavily in the summit discussions. One in three people in New Delhi currently test positive for the virus, and India is reporting 400,000 daily infections as it struggles with a lack of oxygen cylinders, drugs, and hospital space. Through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, not just large European countries but a host of smaller EU members such as Ireland and Denmark are now engaged in India. This is significant – not only because member states are gaining a taste of joint action in the Indo-Pacific. After many years of resistance, India is accepting foreign aid and gifts and has received offers from Europe, Russia, Bangladesh, and even Pakistan. The EU and its members are, thus, part of an ad-hoc coalition of regional players. And Modi is dialing back his macho foreign policy.

As for Chinese assertiveness, one European commentator is right to point out that “There’s nothing like a common rival to forge a marriage of convenience.” China’s recent behavior has made the EU and India more aware of their shared commitment to a rules-based order, human dignity, and freedom of speech. However, they recognize that shared values, while necessary, are an insufficient basis for partnership. Both sides need to share interests if they are to help maintain the Indo-Pacific as an open and inclusive space and avoid strategic miscalculation. Norway’s India strategy has shown that this is possible. It focuses on areas of mutual interest with India, such as the recycling of ships, to create practical initiatives that yield faster political results.

That is where the third element – Brexit – comes in. If the EU and India have divergent interests, then not least in their individual pursuit of commercial links to China. The promise of an EU-India trade deal is a good corrective. The UK’s departure may have shrunk the EU’s economic heft, but it should remove two of the major sticking points in EU trade talks with India: Britain’s long refusal to budge on visas for Indians and India’s refusal to open up to whisky imports. An EU-Indian Free Trade Agreement (FTA) will, therefore, be back on the agenda, fourteen years after negotiations were launched and eight years after they were suspended. Of course, neither tariff barriers and disputes about environmental and labor standards nor India’s reluctance toward market liberalization will be easily overcome, but this is the obvious time for some form of reset.

Limited Signs of Progress

After years of disappointment, there are indeed grounds for optimism. True, the trade agenda remains stuck due to old concerns around the agricultural and services sectors; yet certain clusters have emerged which may advance cooperation – namely, investor protection, cybertheft, and 5G. There has, moreover, been a drive to work together to set new international standards on the digital economy following recent talks on artificial intelligence (AI) with the European Commission’s Vice-President for “A Europe Fit for the Digital Age” Margrethe Vestager and Indian counterparts. Furthermore, an EU-India Human Rights Dialogue was held on April 12 in New Delhi after a hiatus of eight years. This helped assuage EU concern over the treatment of minorities in India and the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomous status.

Sustainable connectivity – in line with the EU’s 2018 Strategy for Connecting Europe and Asia – will also offer opportunities for the partners to engage, especially via India’s relationship to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). India has been building connections with this 10-strong economic grouping of states, carefully keeping these to the economic realm but never losing sight of the geopolitical implications for China. Likewise, the seven-strong Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) has provided India with a means to play a larger role in regional connectivity initiatives, although concrete results are yet to materialize and the potential for direct EU involvement appears somewhat limited.

And yet, major sticking points between Brussels and New Delhi not only remain, but also serve to caution against making India too central to Europe’s engagement in the region. While – publicly – both the EU and India share a passion for sustainable connectivity, carbon capture, and solar energy, for instance, the EU is learning just how large the challenges are that India faces in its desire to go green. The poisoning of Delhi’s Yamuna River and the heavy influence of Coal India Limited are but two examples that show that cooperation on sustainability issues will be tricky. The COP-26 and G7 summits will be key to unlocking these problems, but both are currently presided over by the UK – and, this week, post-Brexit Britain showed itself keen to accommodate Delhi for its own reasons, finally increasing the visas available to Indian workers.

The Unfinished Potential of Maritime Cooperation

The EU’s global ambitions, both in economic and political terms, are growing. The same can be said of India. But, in truth, both sides know that Brussels is not a natural partner for New Delhi. India is primarily interested in its immediate neighborhood; even a relatively distant state like Japan is a more important partner because it borders on the Indian near abroad. India’s ambitions further afield are hamstrung by its lack of diplomatic networks, meaning that even naval cooperation with the EU will struggle because of the absence of a permanent representative to the EU Military Committee. As for the EU member states, they remain fixated on commercial opportunities in the region. Consequently, the summit will have to find a way to unite EU members who compete with one another for India’s growing defense market and lucrative military and naval contracts.

But such examples also show how maritime cooperation is bringing structure to the EU-India relationship and creating its own spillovers for deeper cooperation. In 2019, the EU declared working on security with partners in Asia a priority and launched a pilot project with India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. Partly in response, India has upped its own bilateral activities in the region through port calls and patrols by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard, as well as military exchange programs and high-level visits. After the EU strengthened the mandate of EUNAVFOR Atalanta, its anti-piracy operation in the West Indian Ocean, activities in South and Southeast Asia will now aim to protect sea lanes of communication with the EU; this, in turn, is an initiative that India may well wish to be part of.

Back in 2014, when adopting the European Union Maritime Security Strategy, the EU made “maritime multilateralism” a priority and recognized that the “Union’s capacity to cooperate with […] regional partners […], as well as multilateral civil cooperation platforms, has a direct impact on its ability to safeguard its interests.” This is finally bearing fruit, and both the EU and India are building ties with littoral states along the Indian Ocean. To prove their mutual interest, the EU and India recently held a high-level maritime security dialogue. They also look set to boost their cooperation in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), in which Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain participate as observers. The “Free Indo-Pacific,” a Japanese concept coined by Prime Minister Abe in 2007, included an Indian element. It should gain an EU component, too.