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Will EU press Modi on Ukraine?

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
May 2, 2022

During his tour of Europe, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will need to walk a fine line between building ties and maintaining his country's neutral stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in 2021
Modi is headed to Germany to bolster ties but India faces criticism over Ukraine Image: Celestino A. Lavin/Zuma/picture alliance

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Germany, Denmark and France next week as India seeks to energize its partnership with the European Union, while facing criticism for its position on Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Since the war began, India has refrained from condemning Russia's actions while stepping up purchases of cheap Russian oil. This is in stark contrast to Europe, which is trying to cut off Russian energy while rallying international opposition to the war.

During his visit, Modi is expected to explain India's Ukraine position to EU leaders. Germany will be his first stop, where the Indian prime minister will sit down for his first meeting with Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin.

The leaders will chair the Indo-German Intergovernmental Consultations (IGC), a bilateral dialogue format intended to move forward cooperation on several policy fronts.

Germany seeks closer ties to India

"No major problem can be solved without India," Tobias Lindner, minister of state at the German Foreign Ministry said ahead of the visit.

"We want to have cooperation in technology, education, security and climate change with India. India is such an important partner," he told a security meeting in Delhi early this week.

Last year, India and Germany commemorated 70 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations, and the two countries have been strategic partners since 2000.

"This visit will be an opportunity to enhance and intensify cooperation in a broad range of areas and for the two governments to exchange views on regional and global matters of mutual interest," India's External Affairs Ministry said in a statement.

Foreign policy experts said the meetings would allow Modi to better understand the German and EU perspective on Ukraine.

India seeks the support of Germany and France in pushing through a free trade agreement that Delhi is negotiating with Brussels.

"This is Modi's first meeting with Scholz, and a personal rapport will help propel both bilateral relations and renew EU ties to a new level in the current environment. Both Germany and France are key in this context of staying invested in the Indo-Pacific," Veena Sikri, a former Indian diplomat, told DW.

After Berlin, Modi will then travel to Copenhagen at the invitation of Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to participate in the second India-Nordic Summit with the leaders of Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

Modi's last stop will be in Paris for talks with French President Emmanuel Macron. These are expected to set a more ambitious agenda for a strategic partnership as the reelected Macron seeks to put France at the vanguard of European foreign policy.

'No pressure' on India's Ukraine position?

Over the past month, there have been a flurry of visits to India by Western officials, who so far have held back on overtly pressing Modi to condemn Russia's war.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sat down with Modi last week, agreeing on new trade and technology cooperation and a promise to "deepen bilateral cooperation with a focus on upholding the rules-based global order."

After Modi met with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said there was "no pressure" from the British leader over India's position on the Russian invasion.

Last month, Scholz's foreign and security policy adviser, Jens Plötner, met with Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and said Germany would not "preach to India" on the war in Ukraine.

"We are not here to lecture or demand," Plötner said. "We are working with India on how best to stop this war."

What does India want in Europe?

India is a key strategic partner for the European Union and is its third-largest trading partner, accounting for €62.8 billion ($66.4 billion) worth of trade in goods in 2020, and the second-largest export destination after the United States.

"India's European policy has Germany as an important node, more for economic and technological reasons than a traditional strategic partnership, which France leads," Gurjit Singh, India's former ambassador to Germany, told DW.

"The German Indo-Pacific policy guidelines enunciated in 2021 were a new willingness to engage with India," he said.

"The expansion of trade and value chains out of Indian manufacturing hubs is linked to the nature of German business interests in India. These are largely green and small, and they need to expand into larger green infrastructure projects," Singh said.

Mohan Kumar, a former ambassador to France, told DW that it is in India's interest that the European Union become a strong, independent "pole" in a multipolar world.

Kumar said the invasion of Ukraine may expedite the European Union's assertiveness on strategic issues, and Germany's changed position on defense and security is one manifestation of this.

"Germany has a new chancellor, and Modi believes in 'personal diplomacy,' so this meeting will be key," Kumar said.

"Germany has started pulling its weight in Indo-Pacific matters, which for India is important. Germany is an economic heavyweight and by far the most important partner in that sense," he added.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11