Europe has not made enough effort to understand what Indians think. As a result, it is missing out on India’s bold attempt to transform itself. This essay collection aims to address this, and to suggest ways of moving the relationship forwards. The broad range of views it contains should not be surprising given the sheer size of India; its linguistic, religious, and societal heterogeneity; and the democratic tradition of the “argumentative Indian”.
The lack of understanding is mutual: both India and the European Union are multifaceted and difficult to grasp. Moreover, in both unions, the strategic community that could explain and interpret such complexity is small. There are few Indian officials who focus on Europe – and vice versa. On the Indian side, there is limited administrative capacity: the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) employs a total of around 1,800 people (by comparison, the German foreign ministry has a staff of almost 6,000).
The consequences of this lack of understanding are clear: the enthusiasm around the 2004 Strategic Partnership agreement and the 2005 Joint Action Plan has dissipated in recent years. The lack of an EU-India summit since 2012, the stalled trade talks that began in 2007 but have been frozen since 2013, and the lingering case of the Italian navy personnel arrested in India over the death of two fishermen illustrate some of the obstacles in the bilateral relationship.
India is much more directly affected than Europe by the political implications of China’s economic rise
Regional crises like those in Ukraine, Libya, and Syria have further estranged India and Europe. The two have a shared interest in stability in the Middle East, but pursue this through different strategies. The rise of Islamic State (IS) is a major challenge for Europe because of the return of fighters, whereas India is challenged by other brands of Islamic militancy, often emanating from Pakistan.
In Asia, India is much more directly affected than Europe by the political implications of China’s economic rise because of its proximity to China, and an unresolved border conflict. In visits to Japan and meetings with US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has clearly signalled that India rejects China’s territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. India will intensify its political, economic, and military relations with the United States even if Washington does not enter any formal alliance against China. But (neo-) realists in Washington and New Delhi know that the rise of India will be an important counterweight against China in the long term. Meanwhile, a coherent European strategy for Asia is still absent.
In the field of global governance, India and Europe have always found it difficult to cooperate effectively, whether negotiating over trade liberalisation or climate change. India’s role in the failure of the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round still rankles with Europe. The November 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris will be an indication of the prospects for further cooperation between India and Europe.
Clashing foreign-policy perspectives have always hampered cooperation between India and the EU. The EU aims to strengthen multilateral institutions and to promote its political and human rights norms, while India also has a long tradition of multilateralism, but rejects outside intervention. It pursues a more classical foreign policy approach, aimed at promoting its great power ambitions in a difficult regional environment. Finding common ground between Europe and India will continue to be a challenge, especially on global affairs.
The search for common ground
One area in which there does seem to be a consensus among the Indian thinkers in this collection is India’s future international role. This consensus is rooted in a classical understanding of great power politics, which differs sharply from EU foreign policy but not necessarily from that of all its member states. As a result, the estrangement between India and the EU has not affected ties between European countries and India.
France is one of India’s most important partners on defence and nuclear energy. It has a military presence in the Indian Ocean, based on the security and economic interests of around a million French citizens on the islands of Réunion and Mayotte. Germany is India’s most important European trading partner, and the two countries have expanded their links in science and technology. India is among the few countries with which the German government consults at cabinet level. Because of its influential Indian diaspora, the United Kingdom has maintained a special relationship with India – even if tinged with lingering postcolonial acrimony. After stops in France, Germany, and Ireland, Modi will visit the UK in November 2015 – the first Indian prime minister to do so since 2006. Hopes are high that the visit will boost trade between the two countries.
EU member states need to agree among themselves that the FTA is in the European interest
No doubt EU member states will be important partners for India as it carries out economic modernisation. Assuming Modi improves the governance structures to facilitate foreign business (as he did when he headed the state government in Gujarat), trade and investment between India and EU member states is set to increase. Concluding a Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA, aka the EU-India Free Trade Agreement or FTA) would facilitate increased trade and investment, but it may need a push by member states like Germany, France, or the UK to break the deadlock.
However, there seems to be a distinctive “disconnect between the three biggest member states”, as ECFR was told during our meetings in India. Thus, any upgrade must start with more coordination between the EU and its member states on what they want from India.
Whither India and Europe?
EU member states need to agree among themselves that the FTA is in the European interest. “Decide to do it or not, but decide”, is what we heard in India. The EU should agree on an agenda for the next EU-India summit, which needs to cover issues besides the FTA. This should include areas where the EU can contribute to India’s domestic flagship priorities (such as Clean India, Skill India, and Smart Cities), and new areas for international collaboration, for instance in the field of development cooperation. The EU should formulate a targeted India strategy, which goes beyond its traditional approach to address domestic changes in India, and the areas where Europeans have expertise to offer. A strategic initiative encompassing India’s programmes on clean energy and sustainable cities would help to bridge the gap between their different starting points on energy and environmental policy.
A push from Brussels should take the form of a high-level visit to India by the high representative – the last such visit was in 2012
Enhanced cooperation with India has to start from the political and institutional realities on the ground. In the course of our discussions, we heard that “India and New Delhi take a top-down approach – they don’t care about embassies, they just care about their own development and about China”. Thus, EU–India inter-bureaucracy dialogue and cooperation is no substitute for a real top-down political and strategic dialogue. A push from Brussels should take the form of a high-level visit to India by the high representative – the last such visit was in 2012.
Both the EU and India work to shore up fragile states, but they do so separately. Despite many commonalities, for instance in the fight against terrorism and the strengthening of democratic governance, they have not been able to cooperate in Afghanistan. Europeans should explore how far Indian involvement in Afghanistan can complement European efforts, and whether there may even be potential for joint EU-India efforts (which might go as far as holding a dialogue on third countries, such as Pakistan).
Some EU member states, in particular France and the UK, share interests with India on maritime security, starting with the Indian Ocean and freedom of navigation. China’s assertiveness has helped move India to a stronger stance on freedom of navigation, where it previously had reservations. Europe and India both have much at stake in protecting maritime trade routes. The EU already plays a role in counter-piracy efforts in the Western Indian Ocean, and could be more involved.
Europe and India can also cooperate through global and regional institutions: India is a founding member of the New Development Bank (NDB) in the context of BRICS; it is becoming a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and is a founding member and the second-biggest shareholder of the newly established China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), alongside 14 European states.
Reaching a new understanding between the EU and India will require effort on both sides. Think-tank-led dialogues and policy recommendations – so frequent in relations with the US, China, and even Russia – will help to foster a community of shared interests, where India and the EU can gradually find common ground on global issues. We hope that this collection will form part of the first step.
 Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity. (London: Penguin Books, 2006)↩
 See Kabir Taneja, “MEA budget has risen 150 per cent over the decade, but it still takes months to free Indians jailed abroad”, Scroll.in, 25 May 2014, available at http://www.scroll.in/article/664264/mea-budget-has-risen-150-over-the-decade-but-it-still-takes-months-to-free-indians-jailed-abroad; and the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, available at http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/DE/AAmt/AuswDienst/Mitarbeiter_node.html.↩