Getting Set For The Summit

Written by Malcolm Subhan | Updated: Sep 11 2004, 05:43am hrs
Petroleum minister Mani Shankar Aiyar will feel perfectly at home in Brussels. New Delhi is taking the European Union (EU) seriously, just as it did some 30 years ago, when he and his colleague, Rajendra Abhyankar, were members of Indias diplomatic mission to the European Economic Community, now the 25-nation EU, and helped draft the first trade co-operation agreement.

Mr Abhyankar returned to Brussels some two months ago as Indias ambassador to the EU. The flurry of activity at the embassy will be highlighted on Sunday, with the arrival of minister for external affairs Natwar Singh. He is coming here to meet his EU counterparts, as part of the ongoing preparations for the fifth EU-India summit to be held in the Hague on October 14. This is the first time that Indias foreign minister will be visiting the EU capital on the eve of a summit meeting. India is represented at summit meetings by its Prime Minister, and the EU by the Prime Minister of the country holding the EUs rotating presidency, which is currently the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, the Joint Commission, set up to supervise the operation of the 1994 EU-India co-operation agreement, is meeting right now. The items on the agenda range from Ayurvedic medicines to Indias participation in the EUs space programme. India wants the EU to treat ayurvedic medicines separate from herbal medicines. A joint expert group has been set up for this purpose.

India is taking part in the EUs satellite radio-navigation programme, Galileo. This will be based on a system of 30 satellites, continuously covering the entire earth surface, and will join the American and Russian global positioning systems. China is also taking part in this programme.

A flurry of diplomatic activity is no substitute for action by economic operators. Indias exports to EU rose from just under 2 billion euro in 1980 to over 13 billion euro in 2002. It ranked third last year as a supplier of textiles and clothing to the EU, after China and Turkey.

During his visit here, Mr Singh will be meeting the EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chris Patten, and its Secretary-General, High Representative for the EUs common foreign and security policy, Javier Solana, a former NATO Secretary-General. Both will be attending the EU-India summit, together with the European Commission President, Romano Prodi.

Mr Singh could use his talks with Mr Patten to give a fresh political impetus to a largely overlooked aspect of EU-India relations the role of Indian and European civil society in strengthening and deepening mutual relations.

The EU-India Round Table, set up in 2000 by Chris Patten and Jaswant Singh, the external relations minister at that time, is languishing. Its seventh meeting, held in Srinagar in June, was poorly attended on the Indian side, despite the best efforts of N N Vohra, its Indian co-chairman. The Round Tables failure to make its mark is all the more regrettable given that both India and the EU have vibrant civil societies.

Myanmar obviously is not on the agenda for Mr Singhs talks here. But he could use it to demonstrate to Mr Patten and Mr Solana, who will be the EUs first foreign minister under its new Constitution, that Asia can no longer be viewed in purely regional terms.

The EU continues to express concern over the political situation in Burma (it refuses to call the country Myanmar), and extended its sanctions against the military regime for another 12 months in April. The situation is serious enough to threaten the summit meeting between the EU and ASEAN (of which Myanmar is a member), China Japan and South Korea, to be held in Hanoi on October 8.

The fact is that EU countries are divided over Myanmar. While some want to isolate it for its poor human rights record, others share ASEANs view that a policy of engagement will be more effective.