While the much awaited EU India summit in Brussels on March 30th failed to break the deadlock over the Bilateral Trade and Invest Agreement (BTIA) negotiations, it paved a way for the restoration and continuation of the annual EU-India summits.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Brussels to participate in the EU-India Summit earlier this week should have been the game changer in the bilateral ties between European Union and India. It was the first summit between the two sides in over four years and it was also the first time that a bilateral meeting was being held between the EU leadership and Modi since his election as Prime Minister in May 2014. Hence, it was also the moment that both sides could have made real progress on some of the most important issues that have been hanging for several years.
But the meeting failed to make any significant progress on the main issues, with a lot of semantics and platitudes in the joint communique issued at the end. The Summit was jinxed as its timing itself was rather inconvenient. It was fitted almost as an afterthought in Modi’s agenda, putting a barely 12 hour long stopover in his journey to Washington DC to participate in the Nuclear Safety Summit called by United States President Barak Obama. To make matters worse, barely a week before the Summit, Brussels had been bombed by alleged Islamic State terrorists, shifting the focus of the not only the Belgian and other European governments to urgent matters of safety and security but also distracting the European Commission, which itself has had a terrible year and a half since hundreds of thousands of refugees, mainly from Syria and parts of Africa and Middle East, began arriving in Europe.
In the content, too, the Summit was a let down. The two sides were unable to move away from the issue of the two Italian Marines who have been facing a murder trial in India for the last three years, an issue that severely crippled India’s relation, not just with Italy, but the entire EU. In fact, Italy had objected to organising an EU-India Summit last year as it wanted India to first release the Marines.
The second and far more consequent failure of the Summit lies in the little, almost nil, progress in the long-pending Bilateral Trade and Invest Agreement (BTIA), as the EU-India Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has been rechristened. When the negotiations were launched with a pomp in 2007, both sides promised to sign the agreement within two years. Now, nine years and several global and regional crises later, the BTIA seems almost to be a lost case. The core differences remain exactly where they have been since 2007. EU wants India to open up its markets in all sorts of sectors – public procurement, services, automobile, wines and alcohols, even agriculture and food, while India wants the EU to open up its markets for all sorts of goods and services, ease visa regimes for Indian professionals in various service industries, notably ITES (Information Technology Enabled Service), and to grant data secure status to India to enable the Indian ITES companies compete effectively with their EU rivals.
The Summit even failed to break the deadlock over the BTIA negotiations, which have been called off for nearly two years, following a series of measures taken by the European Union against Indian pharmaceutical products. It was widely expected that the two sides would announce the kick off of the negotiations and also set a clear time limit for winding up these. However, in the absence of either, the fate of the BTIA remains unclear. Also missing this year, perhaps due to PM’s short schedule, was the business meet on the sidelines of the political meeting, which helps businesses on both sides present their views to the political leadership which can resolve the challenges that the businesses face on the ground.
The Summit did have a few feel good takeaways such as increased participation of EU in India’s ambitious skill development programme, with the two sides promising to hold a seminar before July 2017 and greater cultural exchanges etc. So, the only concrete outcome of this Summit may be that it has paved the way for restoration of the annual EU-India Summits and that the future meetings may be more fruitful than this one.