By Bhaswati Mukherjee*
From an Indian perspective, Europe and the EU appear to be facing multiple crises which are adversely impacting both the India EU strategic partnership as well as Indian public opinion. Is Europe in terminal decline? Should India turn its back on a partner which prefers using soft power to hard power and look across the Atlantic to the India US Alliance as the preferred option from 2017 onwards?
Some analysts say that these new challenges confronting Europe are linked to the tectonic events in the last two decades of the last century. The dramatic changes in the global order with the collapse of the former USSR and the reshaping of Europe after the end of Cold War resulted in the end of bipolarity and a new resurgent EU. Europe spoke openly and jubilantly of the decline of Russia and invited the newly independent Baltic States to join NATO.
Post Lisbon Treaty, multiple new global challenges started posing a threat to the cherished ideal of European unity and solidarity. India too took time to adjust to the new emerging world order. India remained wary to the EU’s suggestion that it become a new pole in a multi-polar world. The Indian leadership at that time felt the European definition of multi-polarity was a challenge to its cherished principles of non alignment.
When the India-EU Strategic Partnership came through in 2004, India was careful to convey that it continued to be non-aligned. Nor did India at that time pronounce itself strongly in favour of multi-polarity despite some prodding from the EU. Today, it appears remarkable that after so many challenges, including the European sovereign debt crisis, talk of Grexit and now a looming Brexit, both sides continue to have differing perspectives on the challenges, their impact on India EU relationship and the way forward.
To redefine the partnership and make it relevant is the need of the hour. Both sides should agree on a common strategic paradigm. In addition, negative perceptions from both sides should be fully addressed. EU and India need to better understand and appreciate each other.
In order to revive interest among Indian public opinion makers about Europe and its potential, the European Union needs to project itself as a major global power centre, whose strategic perceptions globally and in India’s neighbourhood, coincide with India’s perspectives.
The EU, with two permanent members in the Security Council, should demonstrate that it is a global political player, capable and willing to use military power when required or to play the role of a power broker during a global crisis.
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The EU continues to be in a state of denial regarding the crises. Many EU member states continue to believe that the EU remains a major pole in an emerging multi-polar world. There is also a reluctance to give priority to the relationship with India, over China.
Senior officials in Brussels insist that the economic partnership with China must be nurtured and given the highest priority. India can at best be at second place. As a result, sensitive political issues from a Chinese perspective are very carefully handled. This is privately commented upon by senior Indian officials who contrast it with the American approach. They are also baffled by the EU insistence on a human rights dialogue with India. Most EU ambassadors here also privately acknowledge that that continuous finger-pointing and focusing on India’s “flaws” or a one sided dialogue do not make for a good relationship.
On the political level, EU-Indian relations appear to be deadlocked. The 13th Summit in March 2016 was held after a long gap. Dates suggested by India in April 2015 met with no response. Some attribute it as fallout of the Italian Marine crisis. Held in the shadow of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, the 13th Summit Joint Statement could have recognised the multiple threats emanating from India’s neighbourhood which constitute a threat to international peace and security. It did not do so and missed a valuable opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of the strategic partnership to a sceptical Indian public.
The challenge posed by the Indo-US partnership to the India EU strategic relationship has hardly been publicly discussed. Many Indians believe that given the complexities and sensitivities of India’s difficult neighbourhood and the threat of terrorist strikes from across its borders, an alliance with the US is the need of the hour, rather than with the EU which appears divided and in decline.
What is the way forward? To respond to these multiple challenges, both sides need to respect each other’s strengths and global relevance. Both need a similar understanding of multipolarity. In an emerging multi-polar world, India and EU would be two important poles, essential to maintaining a transparent, democratic and strategic global narrative. The partnership must not stagnate and become marginalized; international peace and security would be at stake.
*Bhaswati Mukherjee is a former India Ambassador to the Netherlands and UNESCO and has dealt extensively with Europe