Greek foreign minister George Papandreou representing the 15-nation European Union (EU), stated, We had very constructive discussions with our colleague, the foreign minister of India. EUs chief foreign policy representative and former NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana stressed the need for the EU to maintain a very solid relationship with India, the most important democracy in the world.
The most significant outcome of the Athens meeting was the Indian foreign ministers favourable response to the proposals put forward by EUs commissioner for external relations Chris Patten. It is the Brussels-based European Commission (EC), which has been the driving force on the European side for closer India-EU relations since the 1970s, following the UKs entry into what was then the 6-nation European Economic Community.
Speaking on the eve of the third India-EU summit in Copenhagen last October, commissioner Patten called on India and the EU to create a powerful partnership of democracies. At the Athens meeting, he indicated how this could be achieved. His suggestions included structured brainstorming, a process involving not only politicians and civil servants but also civil society.
The Greek foreign minister thanked Mr Patten for his suggestions on further deepening the relationship between the EU and India through a number of exercises, where we can come up with new ideas. Given that Greece holds the EUs rotating presidency during the first six months of this year, the Greek governments support for moves to strengthen India-EU relations will be particularly important.
It remains to be seen, however, just how far the fine words pronounced in Athens result in action. The obvious follow-up to the Athens ministerial meeting was for the Indian foreign minister to join commissioner Patten on his flight back to Brussels. Mr Sinha could then have launched the brainstorming process with his representatives in Brussels, Indias diplomatic mission to the EU, beside him. The fact is that ministerial visits to Brussels, where the key EU institutions are based, are important in themselves. They are the clearest indication of the importance that India attaches to its relations with the EU. The point of ministerial visits has not been lost on the Chinese, for example.
Mr Sinha is expected in Brussels in March, foreign secretary Mr Kanwal Sibal in mid-February. These are encouraging signs, and must be seen as evidence that New Delhi is taking its relationship with the EU more seriously. But it is important that Mr Sinhas ministerial colleagues also make it a point to visit Brussels when in Europe or en route to the US.
The commerce and industry minister should obviously call on his EU counterpart, Commissioner Pascal Lamy, whenever he is in Europe. But visits by the ministers responsible for science and technology, information technology, the environment, energy and transport are perhaps even more important. The fact is that India-EU relations are often reduced to trade disputes over anti-dumping, simply because there is no attempt by India to project itself in the round as a major scientific nation.
Ministerial visits should be carefully planned, of course. The visit which Mr Murli Manohar Joshi, the minister for science and technology, paid to Brussels last November went unnoticed. Indeed, there was considerable uncertainty here a to whether he would come at all, so inadequate were the preparations for it.
Speaking in Athens, Mr Sinha noted that in order to provide further impetus to our relationship, perhaps a brainstorming between the two sides could be in order, and undertook to discuss that particular idea with the EU. Commissioner Patten, put forward the idea because of a growing frustration in relations with New Delhi, despite institutional machinery which covers the entire gamut from annual summit meetings, attended by prime ministers, to meetings at the level of experts. European Commission officials hope that the foreign secretarys visit in February will mark the start of a brainstorming i.e. wide-ranging but informal process, which will both clear the air and throw up ideas for taking the relationship forward. If the process is to be successful, it must not be limited to the ECs external relations directorate, headed by Commissioner Patten.
And it must involve civil society. The India-EU Round Table, set up by Chris Patten and Indias former foreign minister Jaswant Singh in February 2001, had made recommendations at the New Delhi and Copenhagen summits. While these recommendations have been welcomed, there has been no follow-up on them so far, partly because no funds have been allocated for this purpose.
The first India-EU summit, which paved the way for the Round Table, also called for the creation of an India-EU think-tank network. Independent think-tanks clearly play an important role in helping shape the external relations
of the UK and the US, for example.
The European Commission had recognised the need for an India-EU think-tank network as long ago as 1996, but progress towards the creation of such a network remains slow.
Greater involvement by civil society in the decision-shaping process would benefit decision makers, by opening up the discussion on India-EU relations to public opinion in both Europe and India. Increased public awareness of these relations would inevitably result in greater media coverage of India-EU relations.
The fact is that the India-EU Round Table has been concerned, from the very beginning, at the virtual indifference of the Indian media to the EU. There is regular media coverage of Indias relations with individual EU countries, but the EU as such is featured only when a trade dispute threatens Indian exports and jobs. Hence the Round Tables recommendations to the India-EU summit for the organisation of exchanges of journalists and the creation of an India-EU civil society Internet forum.
It is quite absurd, of course, that relations between the worlds two largest democracies have reached such a low stage that brainstorming sessions are needed to point the way ahead. Clearly, India and the EU need to interact more with each other, and in as many areas of mutual interest as possible. If brainstorming can show them the way, then let the process begin.