Recent EU-India ties have been described as lackluster. And with India shifting its foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific, Shazia Aziz Wülbers tells DW it's time for both sides to realize the partnership's potential.
India's BJP-led government has repeatedly stated it wants to play a more ambitious role in the Asia-Pacific in line with the country's growing economic and strategic interests. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came to power last May on promises of revitalizing India's struggling economy, recently rechristened India's foreign policy approach as the "Act East" policy - formerly called "Look East" - in a bid to highlight its goal of establishing deeper ties with countries such as Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Australia.
But where does this leave India's ties with Europe? While trade relations with some European Union (EU) member states such as Germany, France or the UK remain strong, barely any mention has been made by the Modi-led government as to relations with the EU as a whole. Moreover, the partnership's single major initiative, a bilateral trade and investment free trade agreement, has been under negotiations for seven years, with no compromise in sight.
In a DW interview, Dr. Shazia Aziz Wülbers, Europe expert at the Germany-based University of Applied Sciences in Bremen, says that while the EU is likely to continue to be one of India's top trade partners, both sides should join forces in other areas to fully realize the partnership's potential.
Wülbers: 'The Modi-led government has declared its top priority is to revitalize India's economic growth'
DW: How would you describe the current state of relations between India and the EU?
Shazia Aziz Wülbers: Over the past decades, relations between India and the EU have been clouded by rhetoric not matching action. While they have been called "natural allies," this has not been translated into any substantial improvement of relations. Moreover, the EU-India strategic partnership which was signed in 2005 has yet to realize a fraction of its initial goals.
Given that the Modi-led government's top priority is to bring India's economic growth back on track, the PM is now in the process of signing a host of bilateral agreements. This was a key issue in Modi's recent meetings with his Australian and Japanese counterparts. However, Modi's "Act East Policy" is not necessarily negative for Europe, as it reflects that he is open for business.
The talks on a Free Trade Agreement between India and the EU - which started in 2007 - have made some progress.Nonetheless, the contentious issues remain, with both sides seemingly unwilling to compromise. Europe has difficulties accepting India's demands for mobility of labor, while India is concerned about opening the legal and insurance sectors. Some other issues involve intellectual property rights, agricultural subsidies, high import duties on cars and wine, among others.
What do Europeans expect from the Indian administration?
Given that the Modi-led government has declared its top priority is to revitalize India's economic growth, European companies are confident that this will translate into new business opportunities, particularly as achieving such a level of economic growth will likely require support from India's trade partners. In this regard, the EU has been and will remain one of India's largest trading partners for the next few years.
Traditionally, India has had strong ties with Germany, the UK and France. Trade with Eastern Europe has also increased in the past decade. Trade with Germany is expected to increase further given PM Modi's new emphasis on wind power, science, technology and engineering.
What does India expect from Europe?
First and foremost, India has expected good trade relations with European countries. But it has also wanted to be recognized as a global player. The European Union, however, has failed to do this. The Indians already have this recognition from the US, which has referred to them as a "responsible power." Washington backed these words with action when they signed the India-US nuclear deal based on the belief that India is a responsible nuclear power.
What are the main obstacles to the EU-Indian partnership?
For Indians, the European Union is an ever-changing body with new countries joining every once in a while. Since New Delhi has very good bilateral relations with the big EU member states, relations with the EU institutions are an add-on. However, it took the European Union a long time to accept that the Indian economic reforms of 1991-1992 were real and far-reaching. Only in early 2000 did the Europeans acknowledge this and took the India-EU partnership to the next level by establishing summit-level talks each year.
But if you compare this with the EU's dealings with China, you will notice that the European response was much swifter when the Chinese implemented economic reforms in 1973.
This difference can be observed today by comparing the EU-China trade balance to that between the EU and India. It is important to point out, however, that the Indians, too, have been late in recognizing the importance of the EU both on the international stage as well as in terms of the global political economy.
What must both sides do to improve ties?
The most important thing that they can do right now is to realize that EU-India relations can be mutually beneficial. If India and the European Union join forces on issues such as sustainability, rebuilding post-war Afghanistan, and improving the cooperation between Europol and the Indian police, particularly for the development of anti-terrorism strategies, this would surely help both sides get recognition as important global players with global initiatives.
Dr. Shazia Aziz Wülbers lectures on European and International Political Economy and is Deputy Head of the India Study Centre at the Bremen University of Applied Sciences in Germany.