TCS Daily


Subcontinental Divide

By Pramit Pal Chaudhuri - November 12, 2004 12:00 AM

It's been all good bonhomie after the fifth summit between the European Union and India in The Hague.

The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, told journalists on the flight back to New Delhi, "I am satisfied with the outcome of the summit. It has far exceeded my expectations, especially when compared to earlier India-EU meetings in Lisbon and other venues."

His Dutch counterpart and present holder of the EU presidency, Jan Pater Balkenende, was equally flowery. "We see the EU and India as poles of stability. But there is a lot of instability in-between...and India has a crucial role in stabilizing its region and beyond."

On paper, however, there wasn't too much to show for the meeting. There was a mundane promise to promote cultural relations. The EU also committed itself to offer $42 million in scholarships to help Indian postgraduate students study in European universities.

The big expectation of the summit - the two would put some flesh on the bones of their recently announced strategic partnership - was put off until next time. The two sides agreed to chalk out a joint action plan on the partnership. With officials on both sides saying the partnership would focus on economic issues, it was relatively clear that of the EU's and India's motley collection of strategic partnerships, this one would continue to the weakest of the pack for both sides.

What is obvious is that the summit was a success when held to the extremely low expectations that tends to accompany India-EU get-togethers. There are a number of reasons for this state of affairs:

First and foremost is that the EU continues to be light-years away from developing a common foreign and security policy. Brussels has to choose subjects that are on the fringes of foreign policy or ones where there are no major differences among the major European states. This means peace-keeping is fine, but Iraq is out. In the case of India, the fourth EU-India summit outlined key cooperative areas notable for their lack of controversy: conflict prevention, counterterrorism, nonproliferation and human rights. The real action in India-EU relations tends to be in trade, especially World Trade Organization related topics, simply because that is an area where there is a common European approach.

Second, and perhaps more fundamental, is that on crucial foreign policy issues India and the EU have two very different perspectives. Brussels is home to a post-modern view of international relations with a strong emphasis on human rights, civil society and a general abhorrence for military action or realpolitik.

India, a rising power that sees itself as living in a tough neighborhood - China to the north, the Persian Gulf to the west, Burma to the east and long-time rival Pakistan next door - has little use for such pleasantries. For example, New Delhi has long been displeased with repeated criticisms of its heavy-handed war against insurgents in the state of Kashmir by the European Parliament. India has also taken a poor view of the EU's refusal to endorse its policy of not negotiating with Pakistan so long as the latter sponsors terrorist attacks against India.

India has learnt to ignore the EU's pronouncements over the years in such fields. One reason is that Brussels is more or less toothless in terms of actually hurting India in any tangible manner. But another is that such pronouncements tend to be immediately countermanded by the larger European states, notably the United Kingdom, France and Germany. Indian diplomats are generally bemused that these governments rush to tell New Delhi to ignore the EU's blandishments - their individual policies will also ignore what Brussels says.

Over time, the EU and India have been better at finding common ground. It's one of the reasons that the strategic partnership was set up. The focus has been on areas where there will be minimal friction. Also, India's growing economy - the second-fastest in the world in recent years - and India's abilities in the field of information technology have led the EU to temper its moral pronouncements.

Finally, the EU is starting to realize that its own postmodern hopes are coming apart in the face of militant Islamic terrorism. The Madrid train bombings and repeated terrorist scares in Europe have led Brussels to start handling the subject in a more hard-nosed manner. The Netherlands itself has been in turmoil since the murder of Theo Van Gough, the film-maker, by Islamic militants earlier this month.

India, the home to the world's largest Muslim population living under a secular democracy and notable for the fact none of its Muslims have joined Al Qaeda, is being seen as a country that the EU cannot ignore. At the end of the present summit, EU foreign policy head Javier Solana said as much: "They have been able to maintain a situation in which no extremism has been developed. And we would like very much to learn what they have to teach us."

[The author is the foreign editor at Hindustan Times newspaper in New Delhi.]

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