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Posted at: Apr 28, 2015, 12:43 AM; last updated: Apr 27, 2015, 10:37 PM (IST)

Italy plays the spoilsport

The marines’ issue scuttles India-EU Summit
Italy plays the spoilsport

There were great expectations of an upswing in India-EU relations after India's elections. Regretfully, an opportunity to inject a new dynamism into the relations has been lost. Federica Mogherini of Italy as the new Vice-President and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign and Security Policy has ensured, to the surprise of major European Union members such as France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands, that the ongoing judicial proceedings with regard to the Italian marines cast a long shadow on the India-EU relationship itself. This was manifest in the developments leading to the long anticipated India-EU Summit that was supposed to have been held during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to France and Germany this month.
Due to the vision of former Prime Minister  Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the supportive role of the then Portuguese Presidency of the European Union, the first India-EU Summit was held in Lisbon in June, 2000.   The Summit was a great success and laid the foundation for a new strategic relationship with the EU. Thereafter, at the suggestion of Portugal, the EU decided to institutionalise annual Summits with India, the venue to rotate between the Presidency and India.  After the Lisbon Treaty, the Summits when hosted by the EU were held in Brussels.  Such Summits were only held with a few of EU's strategic partners.  
The Summits ensured regular political dialogue between India and the EU at the highest level.  Though the terminology changed after the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, interaction continued at the same level. In September 2004, during the Dutch Presidency of the European Union, the relationship was upgraded to strategic partnership.  The EU recognised India as a 'regional and global leader, engaging increasingly on equal terms with other world powers’.  Since the first Summit in Lisbon in 2000, twelve more have been held.  The one held in Brussels on December 10, 2010, was the first to be held after the Lisbon Treaty, while the 12th India-EU Summit in New Delhi was the first to be held in India after the Lisbon Treaty.
The Italian marines issue is the latest on a long list of many challenges which need to be addressed and overcome for a truly mutually beneficial strategic partnership.  The under-performing European Union — India Strategic Dialogue has been qualified as high on rhetoric and low on substance. Contentious trade negotiations between the European Commission and New Delhi, repetitive haranguing on human rights issues by the European Parliament, the inability of the European Union to be a credible global security provider or broker, and the impotence of the Institutions of the European Union in shaping geopolitical outcomes can be cited as reasons which have prevented the Strategic Dialogue from maturing to its full potential as a Strategic relationship.
The EU lost a valuable opportunity to have Summit-level meeting with the Indian Prime Minister when he visited France and Germany in April 2015.    The European External Affairs Service (EEAS) decided not respond to repeated Indian queries on dates for the Indian Prime Minister to visit Brussels. Cesare Onestini, Political Chargé d'Affaires of the delegation of the European Union to India, said: "No date has been formally proposed to the Indian side". Naturally, it resulted in the cancellation of the earlier plan for a Summit in Brussels. Now the Indian side is reportedly very cool to EU suggestions on a future date.
Many European Union member-states have reportedly expressed their disappointment to the MEA over the lackadaisical manner in which the EU handled India's offer for a summit meeting in mid-April.   This has also been the subject of intense media speculation.  An  Ambassador of a small but highly developed EU member-state  regretted that important EU member-states have benefited from the cancellation since the positive offsets of the Prime Minister's recent visit to Europe were of great bilateral advantage.  This is clear from the substantive outcomes of the PM's recent visits to France and Germany. The Ambassador in question was voicing resentment of many smaller EU countries which were missing out on the huge trade and investment opportunities in India because of Italy’s desire to hold up the Summit.   Another envoy noted that the EU's Common External Trade Policy had been undermined with the Summit not taking place anytime soon. Many member states were looking forward to the Modi visit as an opportunity to revive the stalled India-EU FTA negotiations, according to another EU Ambassador.
Some European diplomats have directly blamed Italian diplomat Frederica Mogherini  for the Summit cancellation. Mogherini has on several occasions spoken out against the delay in the trial of two Italian marines accused of killing two Indian fishermen, warning that the issue had the potential to impact EU-India relations and may also have a bearing on the global fight against piracy. Clearly, strained relations with Federica Mogherini, who was the Italian Foreign Minister prior to becoming the European foreign policy chief and head of the European External Affairs Service, are directly impacting EU-India ties. Italy had threatened to leverage its influence within the Institutions of the European Union to downgrade relations with India, citing the case of two Italian marines.  Mogherini told the European Parliament in January 2015 that “it is good for everyone to be fully aware of how much of an impact the unresolved dispute of the two Italian Navy officials can have on relations between the EU and India. It is putting them to the test”. MEPs led debates in the European Parliament and obtained a resolution condemning India for alleged human rights violations of the two Italian Navy marines.  
Ambassador Joao Cravinho, head of the delegation of the European Union to India, who now steers the EU-India relationship instead of the Troika, remains circumspect about future trends. When I met him on January 15, ahead of the preparations for the Summit, he had noted that our Prime Minister's focus on growth and development “plays very well in the EU context”.  He added that the new focus on renewable energy and growth of smart cities i.e. planned urban development with technology, had the full support of the EU. That optimism is now tempered with realism.
India has repeatedly sought to engage and build bridges with the European Union and the Commission.   This can still be achieved with a statesman like approach from the EU side and the determination of not allowing national issues to divert the dialogue.   The EU would do well to reflect on whether there is any other alternative to an annual Summit-level political dialogue with India, the world's largest democracy and for whom the EU is its largest trading partner.  Delaying the dialogue because of the narrow national agenda of one country, Italy, only ensures that bilateral benefits accrue to a few of the EU's major member-states and India's other strategic partners outside Europe.  The world is calling to do business with us.  Does the Commission wish to stay away?
The writer is a former Indian Ambassador to the
Netherlands and several other European countries


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