In times of strategic confusion, deeper dialogue is a must

The relationship between the EU and India has vast potential in areas ranging from multilateral institutions to global health.

For a European Union that has expressed more geopolitical ambition, the virtual summit with India is an important event, providing the opportunity to further develop a relationship that offers vast possibilities for the future.

There are certainly problems that should not be ignored. The ambitious start in 2007 of efforts to negotiate a broad-based trade and investment agreement stalled in 2013, and they haven’t shown any progress since then. Questions have also been raised in EU business circles over the slowing of economic reform in India. And there were serious concerns expressed in the European Parliament earlier this year over the passage of India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

The relationship got off to a good start this year. The new EU high representative, Josep Borrell, chose the Raisina Dialogue in January as the venue for his first major policy speech, and Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar visited Brussels for high-level talks in February.

But then the handling of the covid-19 crisis became a priority in both Brussels and New Delhi.

Cooperation on global health issues – covid-19 and beyond – should be an important theme at the summit. The EU took the lead at the recent World Health Assembly to chart a way ahead for reform of the World Health Organisation – and, with the United States out of the game and China carrying baggage, the EU and India should be natural partners in discussing vaccine issues and future pharmaceutical production opportunities.

Both the EU and India are committed to upholding a functioning multilateral system but, with this under increasing strain, it is an increasingly important area of cooperation and stronger efforts should be made to develop a common approach. Apart from global health concerns, there are issues associated with the reform of the World Trade Organisation; respective climate policies as the important COP26 at the end of 2021 nears; and a large number of issues related to digital questions.

With the United States out of the game and China carrying baggage, the EU and India should be natural partners in discussing vaccine issues and future pharmaceutical production opportunities.

Digital concerns will grow in importance. And this is an area where the EU and India need to develop their respective global approaches to not be torn apart by the rivalry between the US and China.

But it is most important to seek a deeper dialogue in a period of strategic confusion and increased great power rivalry. As relations with China are under review in both the EU and India, Brussels should listen attentively to New Delhi’s assessment of the recent conflict with Beijing in Ladakh and its long-term ratifications. And it must demonstrate that it understands and is prepared to support the increasingly important role India will play in the Indo-Pacific area.

This will be the economic and political point of gravity in the world in the decades ahead, and relations with India will thus be of increasing importance to the EU. As per present trends, in a few years, the Indian economy will equal the EU’s and be the second-largest in the world, after China’s. It is a partner no one can neglect – and the EU has every reason to give the relationship more weight than has been the case so far.

Carl Bildt is ECFR’s Co-chair and former prime minister of Sweden. This article first appeared on ORF.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Co-chair of ECFR’s Council
Former Prime Minister and Former Foreign Minister of Sweden

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