Broadbase Indo-EU link

Written by Malcolm Subhan | Updated: May 14 2005, 05:30am hrs
Europe matters to India in many ways, ranging from the economic and political to the scientific and technological. And yet, the ambitious plans of New Delhi and Brussels to crown a relationship going back more than 40 years with a wide-ranging strategic partnership could yet fall flat. Not from a failure of political will; after all two Prime Ministers, Manmohan Singh and Tony Blair, are expected to adopt an action plan to bring about this partnership at their summit meeting in September.

Ironically, the well-laid plans of even Prime Ministers can be derailed by public indifference. Who remembers the very comprehensive partnership agreement which India and the then 12-nation European Community, the forerunner to todays 25-nation European Union (EU), adopted over 10 years ago, and backed up with a political declaration Even the experts only refer to it in passing, although the 1994 agreement remains the formal basis of India-EU relations. The general public is indifferent to these relations because they have been, indeed are, largely excluded from any role in the decision-making process. The process is dominated by officials and officialdom - officials from ministries in New Delhi and from the EUs executive arm, the European Commission, in Brussels. This is very largely true even as regards business and commercial issues, which are discussed in the absence of businessmen and exporters. If the EU is Indias largest trading partner, it is thanks to the private sector.

The solution of course is to involve the general public in the current discussions between Indian and EU officials on the action plan for a strategic partnership. The machinery for this already exists: it is the India-EU Round Table, which was set up in 2000 by a former Indian External Affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, and his EU counterpart, Chris Patten. The Round Tables Indian members have included the media advisor to the Prime Minister, Sanjaya Baru, as well as CIIs Tarun Das and FICCIs Amit Mitra. The European members are all drawn from the European Economic and Social Committee, set up in 1948 to give European civil society a voice in the economic and political integration of Europe.

The Round Table has the right to make recommendations to the Indian and European Prime Ministers on even the most sensitive subjects. At its 8th meeting, held in London last December, the Round Table discussed labour relations in India and the EU, and added the subject of cultural and religious pluralism in democratic societies to its agenda. This particular topic is to be the subject of a major conference, which is likely to focus on the integration of the Muslim communities in India and the EU. Even without the prospect of Turkey joining the EU, there is growing concern in Europe about the role of the Muslim communities in their midst. This was the subject, in fact, of a conference held in Athens just six weeks ago. Europeans, the Indian concept paper for the conference points out, needs to look at how the Indian State has engaged its 150-160 million Muslims and negotiated with their fears and aspirations.

N.N. Vohra, the Round Tables Indian co-chair, is coming here next week, with other Indian experts, for a meeting convened by its European co-chair, Ms. Anne-Marie Sigmund, President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). They will be drafting the programme for the conference to be held here later this year, with the participation not only of academics but also representatives of Indian and European civil society.

The EESC itself is expected to adopt a report on India-EU relations this week, drafted by Sukhdev Sharma, a U.K. member of both the EESC and the Round Table. The report calls on the organisation to take full advantage of the political support, in both EU institutions and the Indian government, for closer cooperation between their civil societies. The report also shows how the Round Table can contribute effectively to the drafting of the action plan for a strategic partnership, a key development in India-EU relations.

One of the Round Tables major initiatives, aimed at bringing together Indian and European civil society organisations, is the creation of an India-EU civil society Forum on the Internet.

The Forum offers its members a ready channel of communication between their bi-annual meetings. At the same time, it allows others to contribute to the preparation of the Round Tables recommendations to the India-EU summit meetings.

Mr. Sharmas report calls on the Round table to complement the India-EU business and political summits by organising conferences on social issues, such as the social effects of outsourcing and its impact on EU immigration policy.

The writer can reached at m.subhan@eias.org