Beyond the nice words and solidarity for India’s COVID predicament expressed by the European Union leadership, the most significant outcome of the India-EU summit of Saturday was the decision to relaunch the talks on a trade and investment treaty.
The talks had been stalled since 2013 because of differences on issues such as market access for European products, mobility for Indian professionals and geographical indications protection.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi represented India at the summit, which was held in this format involving the entire EU leadership for the first time. The summit was hosted by Portugal, the EU was represented by the 27 EU leaders, as well as its apex leadership – Charles Michel, the President of the European Council and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission.
According to Michel, the two sides have now agreed to launch negotiations on “mutually reinforcing agreements on trade, on investment protection, and on geographical indications.” Whether or not these succeed is another matter given the uncompromising attitude of both sides on some key issues.
Despite Prime Minister Modi’s appeal, no common ground was found on the issue of waiving Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) related to COVID treatments and vaccines.
Last week in a surprise move, President Biden had said that the US was willing to consider a waiver, but a day later German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly opposed the waiver. Under WTO rules, such a move would require consensus that can only be worked out by extensive negotiations.
Even so, assuming the waiver is provided today, the facilities for making vaccines could easily take more than a year to be established. This would not be able to address the emergency the country confronts today.
Focus on Fight Against COVID
A major focus of the joint statement issued after the meeting was the fight against COVID-19 in the wake of the pandemic’s surge in India. Leaders expressed their solidarity with New Delhi and pledged cooperation.
Urgent shipments of oxygen, medicine and vital equipment worth 100 million Euros had already been organised by 15 member states under the EU’s civil protection mechanism.
The two sides also took up the longer term issue of global cooperation on creating more resilient medical supply chains, vaccines and Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients, as well as ensuring universal and equitable access to vaccines.
Another area of interest was the importance of addressing the issue of climate change and fostering green growth. Both sides reiterated their commitments to the Paris Agreement and the need to strengthen the steps to mitigate climate change.
As part of this the two sides agreed to cooperate in deploying renewable energy, promoting energy efficiency and collaborating on smart grid and storage technology.
Widening EU’s Connectivity
Underlying the summit were the increased tensions between the EU and China. So, not surprisingly, a fourth major development was related to the connectivity partnership which will expand the EU’s connectivity initiative to enhance digital, energy, transport and people to people connectivity.
The initiative emphasized the importance of widening cooperation in third-world countries and regions, notably in Africa, Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific in the area of digital, energy, transport and people to people connectivity.
But so far, its connectivity activities have been focused nearer home in the Balkans and the Caucasus. The EU already has a connectivity partnership with Japan and now it is seeking to expand to the Indo-Pacific
Last month, the EU announced its new Indo- Pacific strategy which seeks to promote ‘regional stability, security and sustainable development” in the region. It sought to address the increasing tensions on trade and supply chains, as well as political and security areas.
The strategy will be based on “upholding democracy, human rights, the rule of law and respect for international law.”
The very last paragraph of the Joint Statement issued after the meeting on Saturday is a long winded sentence which says that the two sides are committed “to a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific space”. No one can doubt that the unstated target of the statement was the People’s Republic of China.
Equally significant is the reference to the new dialogue between the Indian Navy and the erstwhile European Union task force combating piracy in Somalia EUNAVFOR Atlanta in relation to the Indo-Pacific.
All this sounds nice in a terms of joint statements and declarations, but it should be clear that a significant gulf still separates India and the EU on many key issues. A trade and investment agreement will not come easily. Likewise, approaches to climate change will vary, IPR issues will not be easy to overcome.
Perhaps, the most important divide could be on the issue of human rights. Though India and the EU have committed themselves to resume their Human Rights dialogue, they will not find it easy to bridge their different perspectives on various issues ranging from religious freedom, to freedom of the press and democracy.
The India-EU meet has taken place when the regional and global situation is fluid and tense. Last December just after the US elections, the EU had arrived at a far-reaching trade and investment agreement with China.
But subsequently, the EU has been drawing closer to the US with both imposing sanctions against China for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Beijing’s counter-sanctions have drawn warnings from EU members that they would oppose the trade deal which would otherwise have been ratified in early 2022.
In this situation, the EU is seeking to strengthen ties with India which it sees as a like-minded entity which is democratic, believes in multilateralism and is ready to work with its agenda on connectivity, Indo-Pacific, climate change and dealing with the COVID pandemic. India cannot replace the value of China as a trade partner, but can serve a useful function as a hedge of sorts.
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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