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EU Starts Public Relations Tour of India

In India, the European Union has an image problem: it is seen as both impregnable economically and shaky politically. EU officials are therefore touring the country to foster a more positive profile.


The EU hopes to open the gateway to India by promoting itself

At a series of seminars with the media in the southern cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad in the past week, held at glitzy locations linked to the country's booming film industry, EU representatives have pitched for a greater understanding of what the EU does internally, on the global stage and in India itself.

They have had to start with basics by explaining the role taken by the executive European Commission in initiating and policing EU legislation and the commission's often troublesome interplay with the member states.

The distinction is important as in some areas of vital interest to India, notably trade; the commission is the EU's voice in international negotiations. Yet in others, such as foreign policy, the commission is powerless with the member states making the running.

Journalists drawn from southern India confessed to finding the details sometimes baffling and said the EU still has much work to do to establish its relevance to India beyond the trade front.

Ordinary Indians should be the target audience

"The EU needs to do much more to raise public awareness among ordinary Indians, by publicizing their important aid work and holding cultural events," K.N. Tilak Kumar, chairman of the regional Deccan Herald newspaper group, told AFP.

Delegates at the seminars said EU-organized film events showcasing the best of contemporary European cinema had been big hits with Indian audiences more used to a solid diet of Bollywood fantasy interspersed with Hollywood blockbusters.

"If they want the EU to be known here, they have to make news in India," Kumar added.

In-fighting creates a bad image

The EU has been making headlines in the Indian press, but for all the wrong reasons. Well-publicized rows among member states, such as over Iraq, have undermined attempts by the bloc to portray itself as a big player on the world stage.

"You have to have a policy on Iraq, the most important foreign policy issue of the day. Having a policy on some things and a non-policy on others is no way of carrying on," said Kumar.

Caught at the sharp end are the under-resourced diplomats tasked with flying the EU's blue starred flag abroad. Drawn from the commission's external relations department, their work is largely confined to trade negotiations and overseeing aid projects.

For the staff of the New Delhi embassy, that work is hugely important given India's pivotal role as a leader of developing nations at the World Trade Organization and its status as a sizeable recipient of EU development funds. They are also keen to promote the EU's experience in conflict settlement, no small concern here given India's intractable dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir.

EU funding has made visible differences

The €100 million ($120 million) of EU grant aid spent annually in India is spread far and wide. In the slums of Mysore near Bangalore, an EU-funded project has brought schooling, immunization and basic sanitation to communities where literacy was just 10 percent five years ago and easily preventable diseases were rife, according to the non-governmental organization overseeing the work.

But as EU officials freely admit, such work does not get much publicity in the local press, hence the seminars.

"The EU has an obligation still to explain that it is more than a fortress, the horrifying force behind the WTO wanting to take over India. We need to counter that with an alternative viewpoint," said Robert Aarsse, first secretary at the Dutch embassy in Delhi, whose country holds the bloc's rotating presidency.

"One thing we stress is that we are multilateral, whereas the US is unilateral. We want to show India that we are a partner to work with," he added.

Proposed strategic partnership to be discussed

At the highest levels of government, the two sides are already well engaged. Ministerial meetings are held regularly, and next month will see the fifth annual EU-India summit, in the Dutch capital The Hague. In preparation for the summit, the European Commission in June unveiled a new set of proposals designed to entrench a fledgling "strategic partnership" with India.

But for Rajendra Jain, professor of European studies at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, India still prefers to deal one-to-one with the big EU nations such as Britain and France, and is "obsessed" by its relations with the United States.

"The Indian elite thinks the EU is just not credible as a foreign policy actor, so the EU is not taken seriously," Jain said. "And in India, the leading EU nations like Britain often have their own agendas to promote, so they're disinclined to give the EU a profile of its own."

Still, if nothing else the EU has covered itself in a sprinkling of glamour by organizing the seminars at a Bangalore resort hotel owned by Bollywood star Sanjay Khan and at southern India's largest film studios outside Hyderabad. It must now hope the stardust translates into more upbeat press coverage.

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