Theresa May’s visit to India this week has been understood as a gesture to indicate Britain’s trading priorities. As the world's fastest-growing economy, India is well aware that it is being wooed – and that it has the upper hand. But are the United Kingdom and India compatible partners? And what gaps do they need to bridge for better future cooperation?
When India and Europe are asked about their relationship, both are quick to point to the fact that India was one of the first developing countries to establish diplomatic relations with the European Economic Community, in 1962. Ties between the two stretch back many hundreds of years, not just to the colonial period, but to the trading links that flourished as long ago as the first century AD. And the cultural relationship is strong too: one striking poll published this year suggested that Shakespeare is more popular among and better understood by Indians than Britons.
But the couple today are less the passionate east-west romance of Antony and Cleopatra and more the Tempest’s Ferdinand and Miranda – somewhat tired and somewhat staid, although not without prospects for a better future together.
Ongoing attempts at reconciliation tend to result in disappointment. In 2012, the year of the 12th EU-India summit, Bernd von Münchow-Pohl, a policy expert on India wrote, “Though they have committed to a strategic partnership, in its present state the EU-India relationship has been likened to a ‘loveless arranged marriage’.”
“India sees the EU as an institution that is fixated on rules and regulations, which brings no added value to its existing bilateral relations”
That event was a typical example of the relationship’s unborn potential. It was a summit that promised little and delivered even less. Four years then passed before the next summit convened, in March 2016. This year’s gathering was attended by Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and Narendra Modi. But, despite high-level participation and a concentration on the issues that bind the partners together – economic partnership, security and energy cooperation, climate change, sustainable development and science and technology – the event broke no new ground.
Are we compatible?
On the surface, India and Europe have every reason to get along very well. They share a similar worldview, both have enormous cultural and linguistic diversity, and share values of democracy and a vision of a stable world order. They both constitute large-scale economies and face similar security issues, like the rising threat of terrorism. And this is, of course, not to mention their vigorous people-to-people ties: Indians represent the second largest diaspora group in Europe.
In 2004, the bilateral relationship was upgraded to a strategic partnership. Yet, this strategic element of the partnership exists only on paper. “It is a disappointing relationship precisely because there are such high expectations from it,” suggests Britta Petersen, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi. “But, there are structural problems on both sides which are difficult to overcome”. Both have complex bureaucracies and find each other opaque and difficult to deal with. Both are also consumed by more immediate priorities, like domestic affairs and their respective neighbourhoods.
Give and take
Often, India sees the EU as an institution that is fixated on rules and regulations, which brings no added value to its existing bilateral relations that India has with member states. It enjoys strong one-on-one relations, particularly with France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Just recently, India and France inked a $7.87 billion deal for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets. France is also developing three Indian cities for the Smart Cities programme launched by the Indian government to make cities more sustainable and livable.
India finds its strongest European ally in Germany. It is the biggest partner of Germany’s development cooperation programme. For example, Germany is collaborating with India on the Smart Cities programme and has offered technical know-how and investment for the Clean Ganga initiative, a project to clean up the river Ganges, that the Indian government is greatly invested in.
In it comes to trade with the EU, representatives from the business lobby in India are worried that a hard Brexit and the falling pound could impact the future of the 800 Indian businesses operating in the UK. Last year, India became the second largest global job creator in Britain and the third largest source of foreign direct investment. During May’s visit, India is likely to bring up the issue of a liberal visa policy for its students and businessmen – the number of students enrolled in UK universities has halved in the last five years.
“Germany is seen as the natural partner of choice, and one that supports India’s aspirations for a more central role in global governance”
Still, India largely feels fairly indifferent to the matter of Brexit. Or, rather, it feels secure in the conviction that Brexit will make little difference to its ties with either Britain or Europe. Apart from seeing it as yet another crisis that threatens the future of a waning EU, policymakers in India have chosen to take an optimistic view of the consequences of Brexit for their country – that it could prod it to forge closer ties with other EU member states, outside of its relations with the UK. Germany is seen as the natural partner of choice by foreign policy experts, and one that supports India’s aspirations for a more central role in global governance.
So while bilateral ties are thriving, India and the EU still need a new script. Could it be found through the deadlocked Free Trade Agreement? Today, India is the EU’s ninth largest trading partner while the EU as a bloc is India’s largest trading partner and largest source of foreign direct investment. The India-EU Free Trade Agreement was proposed in 2007, and there have been 16 rounds of talks since. Among other things, Europe wants tariff cuts on automobiles and wines and spirits, and India wants greater access for its labour market to enter Europe. The EU's struggle to conclude the CETA has been followed carefully in India, not just for its implications for the India-EU FTA (which few in India set much store by), but also for its larger resonance with the debate on globalisation.
During the cold war, Europe represented a “third option” for India, in the choice between the United States and the Soviet Union. Europe continues to be India’s third option, with the choice now between the US and China. India is seeking support for the increasing threat it perceives from China and Pakistan, as tensions escalate with both neighbours. At a recent seminar on India-EU cooperation in Delhi, a representative of the Ministry of External Affairs pointedly brought up the EU's “muted response” to the attack on an Indian Army camp in Uri by militants from Pakistan. Modi himself has reinvigorated India’s foreign policy and is seeking alliances to help secure a greater international role for the country.
Climate security also presents itself as an area of mutual interest. Both India and the EU recently ratified the Paris agreement on climate change. India accounts for about five percent of global emissions, which are likely to grow. As a developing nation, it has maintained that it does not see itself as under any obligation to take on more responsibility for climate protection. But there is recognition that developing nations are the most vulnerable to climate change, which has led to a slight shift in stance.
A future together?
Despite the difficulties faced by both partners, there should be more that brings the two together than pulls them apart. Ties of history, culture and the economy and a similar commitment to democracy mean that together India and the EU could forge an important alliance. From both sides, more stakeholders need to be brought in, and one small win, even a symbolic one, could bring new energy to the relationship. But greater and more sustained commitment is what is needed if India and Europe are to forge a stronger, lasting and dynamic relationship.
Sunaina Kumar is a Delhi-based independent journalist and Media Ambassador India-Germany 2016 who has reported widely on issues of politics, society, and culture
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.