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Is India neglecting European Union?

Saturday 28 May 2005, by SUBHAN*Malcolm

Why is it that India so seldom makes it to the front pages of newspapers in the 25-nation European Union (EU)? And why is it that the EU is seldom reported in the pages of Indian newspapers? The EU certainly matters to China and Japan, going simply by the number of Chinese and Japanese journalists based in Brussels, which has emerged as the world’s news capital, with a press corps numbering over 1,000.

The EU should make it to the front pages of Indian papers this coming week, with as many as 30 Indian journalists arriving in Brussels this weekend. What is more, they will be interacting with some 30 European journalists, 15 of whom are based in Brussels. On Wednesday morning, the Indian journalists will be able to interact with Indian businessmen.

The EU should get an airing in the Indian media a week from now, following a meeting in New Delhi on what could be an important development in India-EU relations, certainly in the run-up to the meeting between Manmohan Singh and Tony Blair in New Delhi in September. A key item on their agenda will be the adoption of an action plan to implement a strategic partnership between India and the EU.

A strategic partnership is the seal of approval the EU has so far given to no more than half a dozen countries, including China, of course. The areas to be covered by the partnership with India were set out by the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, last June. India responded just six weeks later, and in considerable detail, to the Commission’s initiative.

But try to find out where the action plan stands today and you will be told it is a work in progress. Perhaps, Indian and European Commission officials will be more forthcoming after their meeting on June 6 and 7 - perhaps not. But contrast this with the situation some 40 years ago.

The driving force behind the first bilateral agreement between the then six-nation European Economic Community (EEC) and India was New Delhi’s first ambassador to the EEC, the late K B Lall. This essentially commercial agreement was the basis for the agreement which the EEC then concluded with Pakistan and other developing countries. At India’s suggestion, the EEC agreed to widen the scope of their agreement, a move which gave rise to the so-called second generation of agreements with developing countries in Asia and Latin America, including India, of course.

When the EU was negotiating the third generation of bilateral agreements with developing countries, India insisted on its own version of the key human rights clause- much to the annoyance of a number of EU countries, who thereafter imposed their own version of it on other developing countries.

All of which suggests that as the EU has grown in size and expanded its relations with non-EU countries around the world, New Delhi has preferred to look elsewhere. All right, talk by the EU of a strategic partnership with India can be dismissed as rhetoric, if New Delhi so chooses. The fact that progress towards drafting the action plan is very slow suggests that committing yourself to a particular course of action is a far more difficult task than simply talking about it.

Cooperation between India and the EU in the UN and other multilateral institutions is a key element of the strategic partnership. Progress towards defining some of the goals of such cooperation could have been made at the meeting of Indian and EU foreign ministers, which was to have taken place earlier this month in Luxembourg. It was postponed, at New Delhi’s request, but agreement on a fresh date is proving very difficult.

With India’s star is rising in the scientific world, scientific cooperation is perhaps one of the most promising avenues for a quantum leap in India-EU relations. Hence, the importance of New Delhi’s commitment to team up with the EU in the implementation of the EU’s Galileo project, a satellite network which offers an alternative to the American global positioning system. Brussels is still waiting for New Delhi to sign an agreement concluded some months ago.

India’s neglect of Brussels is in sharp contrast to the proactive policy of other Asian countries. China, for example, has already signed its agreement with the EU on Galileo; Korea has now opened negotiations with the EU on Galileo. Closer home, Pakistan has been very active in trying to shape European policy on a very different issue. Pakistani MPs are even now in Brussels, lobbying the European Parliament’s All-Party Group of Friends of Kashmir.

It can be argued that India is doing very well in the EU where it counts most - trade. Indian exports to the EU are on a rising curve: they topped 16 billion euro last year. But Chinese textile and garment exports alone reached 16 billion euro last year, out of total exports of 127 billion euro. China, in other words, has diversified its range of exports to the EU far more than India. This means that its ongoing dispute with the EU over its garment exports is of much less importance to China than it is to the EU.

India, meanwhile, with textile and clothing exports to the EU of 4.7 billion euro last year, is waiting to find out whether its exporters will continue to enjoy preferential access to the EU market under the EU’s revised generalised system of preferences (GSP). The Indian government is rightly focusing on domestic issues.

But in a global economy and a multipolar world Brussels matters. Hopefully this is the message that the 30 Indian journalists visiting the EU capital will spread on their return.

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