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Modi in Europe: A strategic new engagement

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On his Europe tour, Indian Premier Narendra Modi visited Germany, France and Spain – the next big three EU member states following the impending exit of the United Kingdom from the EU.  While India had officially expressed support for a united EU with the UK as a member, Modi’s visit to the next ‘big three’, indicates a mirroring of strategic policy shifts within the EU. At a recent election rally in Munich at the end of May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel proclaimed that Europe can no longer rely on either the UK or the United States. New Delhi is keen to adapt to the new realities of Europe and move forward with a stronger strategic partnership.

Climate change and energy cooperation have emerged as the most prominent agenda items on Modi’s agenda which also included counter-terrorism, trade and commerce, application of high-end technology, socio-cultural and global affairs. Climate partnership is an important nascent pillar of the EU-India strategic partnership established in 2004. At the EU-India summit held in Brussels in March 2016, both partners established a platform on clean energy and climate cooperation and agreed to launch a platform on sustainable urbanisation in the coming year.

In Germany, PM Modi and Chancellor Merkel launched an Indo-German Centre for Sustainability and signed agreements/declarations totalling €1 billion on smart cities, renewable energy and the Indo-German solar partnership, which was started in 2015. Germany is already India’s largest trading partner within the EU and Indo-German cooperation on clean energy, a priority for the both the German and Indian governments, is quite substantial. Similarly in Spain, an Indo-Spanish MoU on cooperation in renewable energy was signed amongst others.

Modi’s visit to France came at the heels of US President Donald Trump’s astounding decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement signed in December 2015 which committed 195 countries to a low carbon future. On 1 June, a day prior to Modi’s visit to Paris, China and the EU had held an annual bilateral summit where both strategic partners vowed to stand by the Paris Agreement. In Paris, Modi vowed to go ‘above and beyond’ the Paris Agreement and claimed that climate change along with terrorism were the two greatest threats to humanity.

Modi’s proclamation of his intent to uphold the Paris agreement in France served a clear indication of India’s intention to strike a deeper partnership with the EU on a mutual priority issue. In India, the Modi government has made substantial progress on climate action. India plans to source nearly 60 percent of its electricity capacity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2027, exceeding the renewable energy targets set in Paris in 2015 by nearly half, and three years ahead of schedule.

Modi’s intention to renew the EU-India strategic partnership is a strategic foreign policy manoeuvre beyond climate cooperation. China’s bold development and connectivity strategy, the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, would create a land belt of economic corridors stretching from Beijing to Europe. India has concerns regarding OBOR over sovereignty and security issues and refrained from attending the OBOR summit on 14 and 15 May in Beijing. New Delhi is also anxious about being crowded out by China’s growing engagement in the region and with Europe.

As a likeminded democratic entity, the EU is seen as a natural ally by New Delhi against a rising China. So far, the EU has supported India’s stand on OBOR. On 16 May, in a major boost to Indian diplomacy, the EU refrained from issuing a statement on the OBOR project citing social, environmental sustainability and transparency concerns. However, India is mindful that with an ever-inward looking US, Europe will increasingly seek to cooperate with China, including eventually on OBOR. While India has for many years been less forthcoming on its relations with the EU, New Delhi is beginning to realise that it can no longer afford to be a reluctant strategic partner to the EU.

In a rapidly emerging multipolar world order, India is fast realising that it can no longer stay on the side-lines of international politics with the risk of being overrun, especially by China. From eschewing power politics under its long-held nonaligned policy, India is of recent immersing itself in major power dynamics. With political turbulence in the US following the election of Donald Trump, the intellectual community in New Delhi, like the EU, is increasingly seeing the US as an unreliable partner.

The EU is fast being recognised by New Delhi as a natural, strategic partner and engagement with Brussels can be expected to intensify in the coming years. In Germany, Modi and Merkel agreed to relaunch EU-India free trade talks which were initiated in 2007. While trade is essential, the free trade agreement may not be operational within the next four years at a minimum. Climate and energy cooperation therefore seem likely to be the crux of the EU-India strategic partnership, furthered by rapidly growing Indo-German cooperation on the same.

While EU-India relations have seen a certain degree of revitalisation under the Modi government, recent events surrounding the Paris Agreement have set the stage for the EU and India to emerge as climate leaders. EU-India climate leadership would not only repair and restore the EU-India strategic partnership, but also help sustain global momentum towards achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Gauri Khandekar is a researcher at the Institute for European Studies (IES) based in Brussels.

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