The speaker was Ms Neena Gill, a member of the European Parliament. What gave added force to her plea for closer Indo-EU relations was the fact that she spoke from a first-hand knowledge of what is at stake, and from the heart.
This is because Ms Gill was born in Ludhiana, brought up in the UK and represents the West Midlands in the 15-nation European Parliament since 1999. She is a member of Parliaments budget committee and its committee on trade and industry.
People come to politicians with their problems, Ms Gill pointed out. As an MEP representing a constituency with a large population of Indian origin, I am often told of problems they face when trying to do business with India, or to enter India to visit the family. On the basis of her meetings with her constituents, Ms Gill is firmly convinced that India must speed up the liberalisation of the countrys economy. In her view, this is the only way to encourage the UK companies to invest in India, as otherwise the bureaucracy puts off these companies from investing in India.
Companies run by people of Indian origin in particular felt that everyone wants a cut even before the Indian company has been set up and is running.
Ms Gill felt that India and the EU face similar issues, such as harmonisation of taxation at the state level. There were lot of parallels in fact between the integration process in India, on one hand, and the EU on the other, she said. Ms Gill cited the very patchy relationship between Indian and European MPs as an example of Indias general indifference to the EU. There are European Parliamentary delegations for China, the United States and Japan, for example. But India is covered by the Parliamentary delegation to the Saarc countries, she pointed out.
Ms Gill noted that many of her colleagues want India to be treated in the same way as China or Japan in this respect. But under our rules this requires that the Indian Parliament send a delegation to the European Parliament. It has repeatedly promised to do so in the last two years, but each visit has been cancelled at the last minute.
This indifference to the European Parliament is surprising, given that India is rightly proud of the fact that it is the worlds largest democracy. The only possible explanation is ignorance on the part of MPs of the powers of their European colleagues, in Ms Gills view.
The Budget committee, of which she is a member, is the starting point for the European Parliaments detailed examination of the EU budget, currently running at over 100 billion euro ($100 billion). An important feature of the budget, from Indias viewpoint, is the sum allocated to development assistance.
Part of the UKs development assistance is channelled through the EU, Ms Gill pointed out. But the sums allocated to various countries require the agreement of all 15 countries.
The trade and industry committee on which Ms Gill sits prepares reports on a wide range of issues of direct interest to India, including the WTO and the Doha Development round of trade negotiations. On-going contacts between European and Indian MPs would enable the latter to put their viewpoints on these and other key issues to the European Parliament.
Ms Gill feels her Indian colleagues do not understand the role of one of the key European institutions in Brussels, the European Commission. This is partly because the European Commission, unlike other multilateral bodies, is an executive body which has powers to initiate legislation on the EUs external trade policy, for example. The commission is also the EUs trade negotiating arm, at the WTO, for example, Ms Gill noted. The EUs forthcoming enlargement will mean an increase in the membership of the European Parliament. Th 10 Central and East European countries expected to sign the Treaty of Accession next April would take part in elections to the European Parliament, set for June, 2004.
Ms Gill was in New Delhi for the workshop organised by the European Commissions India office, to assess the results of the projects financed by the EU under the EU-India Economic Cross-cultural programme. The programme, which has funds of 20 million euro ($20 million) is expected to launch a fresh call for proposals early next year.