External Affairs

What’s on the Table for Modi’s Visit to Brussels

The free trade agreement, counterterrorism and other key areas of cooperation will be up for discussion at the India-EU Summit.

Narendra Modi will attend the EU-India Summit in Brussels on March 30. Credit: PTI

Narendra Modi will attend the EU-India Summit in Brussels on March 30. Credit: PTI

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Brussels for a day on Wednesday, March 30, he is unlikely to make headlines in a city still reeling from the terrorist attacks of a week ago. But European Union officials say Modi’s decision to attend the EU-India Summit amid heightened security concerns in the region is a welcome sign that both sides are keen to re-establish a relationship that has been languishing in recent years.

What’s on the agenda

Held after a gap of four years, the 13th EU-India Summit will focus on counterterrorism, more so in the aftermath of the Brussels bombings. Trade and investment will also figure high on the agenda. EU officials hope that the summit will give fresh political impetus to the free trade agreement (FTA) talks, started in 2007 and suspended in 2013.

“We are not expecting a miracle on the FTA, but we do hope for a political impulse and signal from both sides that there is a commitment to work towards an agreement, and that it is still on the cards,” a senior EU official told The Wire.

European officials hope the closed-door summit will yield a joint statement and an agenda that will serve as a road map for EU-India cooperation in what is referred to as Action 2020. This includes concrete priority actions for the strategic partnership between the two sides over the next five years. Declarations on a water partnership, and an energy and climate partnership are also expected to be announced.

“There is a willingness on the EU’s side to support India’s and Modi’s initiatives, especially in the fields of energy, Swachh Bharat (Clean India) and water management, and we are very well-placed to contribute to all these,” an EU official said.

Diplomats on both sides are also hoping to thrash out a common agenda on migration and mobility to cover legal and irregular migration, international protection and migration, and development. Major sticking points include the EU’s demands to reduce duties on cars and car parts, and wines and spirits, while India wants easier visas for skilled professionals and has demanded data security status, which is crucial for its IT sector to do more business with EU firms.

The summit will also discuss cooperation in the fields of research and innovation, the digital market and human rights.

On foreign policy, the two sides will discuss the latest developments in their neighbourhoods. EU officials say that they are particularly happy that India is playing an active role in Afghanistan and hope to discuss areas of cooperation in that country, ahead of an EU summit on Afghanistan in November. Other countries to be discussed include Pakistan, Nepal, North Korea and the Ukraine.

For the India-Belgium bilateral, terrorism and trade will also figure prominently in discussions that Modi will have with his Belgian counterpart, Charles Michel, who will be accompanied by officials from the top 20 Belgian companies currently doing business in India and those hoping to do so.

EU officials also said they are expecting the European Investment Bank (EIB) to announce a significant investment for a mass transit project in India. “This will enhance the current exposure of the EIB in India significantly,” noted an EU official.

Engaging with EU leadership

Hosted by the EU, the European side will be led by Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission. Although this is Modi’s maiden visit to the EU headquarters, he has previously met Tusk and Juncker on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey in November last year. Frederica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Cecilia Malmstrom, the European Commissioner for Trade, will also be present.

According to an EU official, the summit will be “an opportunity for Modi to really engage with the EU leadership. Modi has a very personalised approach to foreign policy, and it is important for EU leaders that there is some visibility of their engagement with him, and hopefully, some concrete results will follow. The EU as an entity has been absent in Modi’s world, but at the same time he has been engaged with the key member states, including Germany, UK and France. There have also been several bilateral interactions with smaller members, including the Netherlands and Ireland.”

“The Indian side has been actively pushing for a counter-terrorism declaration, which is now expected to take centre stage in light of the recent attacks, but was always on the cards,” an EU official close to the negotiations said. “This is a key challenge for both of us, and an area of cooperation which we would like to see significantly strengthened.”

“Counterterrorism is something that is extremely crucial for us,” Manjeev Singh Puri, India’s ambassador to the EU, said at a recent policymakers’ lunch, organised by Friends of Europe, a Brussels-based think-tank. While India strongly condemns all terrorist attacks, “we believe that while the other guys are plotting (attacks), we, as governments and government institutions have the great ability of large-scale collaboration (to stop them). That’s our asset and we must pool that together,” he added.

The event, which brought together key stakeholders, including senior officials from the EU and international institutions, members of European Parliament, diplomats, academics and business two weeks before the summit, was an attempt to brainstorm on the subject of “moving relations beyond trade”.

“It’s time for a more serious conversation on refugees, peace and security in Asia, Africa and the Middle East,” wrote Shada Islam, director of policy at Friends of Europe, in a paper calling for a fresh start to EU-India relations. “In other areas, the focus must shift to a more practical, pragmatic and operational agenda which seeks to find common ground between Modi’s aspirational modernization drive and EU initiatives to boost growth and jobs.”

While the EU is India’s largest trading partner, largest foreign investor and largest foreign investment destination, India is only the EU’s ninth largest partner, accounting for a paltry 2.1% of the EU’s total trade. “This is an indication that so much more is possible,” a top EU official said at the event. “We would certainly like to build on the convergence of our political and economic agendas.” Referring to the Make in India initiative, the official said it provided a “very large overlap with the EU’s agenda for jobs, growth, fairness and democratic change.”

“There needs to be a readiness to go forward on both sides, and a political push from the top will really help to tap the vastly underdeveloped potential in our relationship,” urged a diplomat at the policymakers’ lunch.  “We don’t have a track record on implementation. Implementation is the key for a new beginning – for a vastly invigorated partnership.”

Meeting the Indian diaspora

Modi’s Brussels visit will include meetings with top Indian businessmen in Europe, including a delegation of diamond traders from Antwerp, where India’s Patel community dominates the diamond trading hub – the largest in the world, with about 84% of the world’s rough diamonds transiting through here. He will also hold separate meetings with members of the European Parliament, and a delegation of Indologists.

The day will end with a jamboree to address the Indian diaspora, in the style of other similar gatherings for Indians in the UK, Germany and the US. Organisers say they expect a crowd of about 5,000 people, who have registered through the Modi in Brussels website.

EU officials, however, are anticipating Modi’s engagements with the Indian diaspora will eclipse the summit. “It’s more likely that the headlines after this summit will be ‘Modi meets 5000 Indians in Brussels’ rather than ‘Modi meets Tusk and Juncker’,” an official said wryly.