A new impetus in India-EU relations

As the world deals with a Coronavirus second wave, Indian Ambassador Santosh Jha tells Rajnish Singh that his country can work together with the EU to ensure economic recovery is quick and stable.
The Indian Ambassador to Belgium, Santosh Jha (left), and the president of the European Council, Charles Michel (right)

By Rajnish Singh

Rajnish Singh is Commissioning Editor at the Parliament Magazine

20 Nov 2020

Asked how he would describe India-EU relations, recently appointed Indian Ambassador to the European Union, Santosh Jha, said they were ‘excellent’. According to the official, “A new impetus has enabled us to focus on our strategic partnership with a renewed sense of vigour,” since the July summit meeting between the EU and India.

The diplomat, appointed in the summer, believes the key to the relationship is having a common world view, saying, “As the two largest democracies in the world, it is in our interest to cooperate, in order to strengthen the rules-based international order and multilateralism.” The ‘EU-India Strategic Partnership: A Roadmap to 2025’ is the blueprint for the future of their partnership for the next five years.

Agreed upon at the summit, it focuses on strengthening economic ties, including through the newly established ‘High-Level Ministerial Trade and Investment Dialogue’, and cooperation and collaboration in other policy areas such as sustainable development and the circular economy. However, Jha believes there is also tremendous potential for cooperation on climate change, citing India’s emergence as “a global leader in the field, based on its recent impressive performance”.

“I believe that if we can combine India’s production capacity with the EU’s technological prowess, we could ensure that nobody is excluded or left behind”

Another potentially key area for closer cooperation, Jha says, is digitalisation, referring to a recently launched joint task force on 5G and artificial intelligence. However, there are other areas that the partnership could cover such as security, especially maritime security cooperation, a priority shared by both the EU and India.

The Ambassador believes this should be looked into, saying, “I think if we continue to pursue our contacts regularly and demonstrate adequate flexibility, we can realise the full potential of our relationship in all areas.”

However, despite the seemingly sunny outlook on relations, there is a black cloud: The Coronavirus pandemic. Here Jha calls for closer cooperation on strengthening medical preparedness and response capacities, information sharing, and improving the global response, including through the WHO. “I believe that if we can combine India’s production capacity with the EU’s technological prowess, we could ensure that nobody is excluded or left behind”, says the Ambassador.

Another aspect of the pandemic that both powers are facing, says Jha, is the economic recovery and trade. “We need to work together to ensure that the recovery is quick and stable. India has emerged as a reliable and trustworthy supply chain partner during the pandemic by sending medical supplies to over 150 countries even while it was suffering from the pandemic itself.”

Commenting on possible improvements in trade relations, the diplomat says, “the newly announced Trade and Investment Dialogue creates a platform to discuss the prospects of a trade and investment arrangement as well as bilateral cooperation on supply chains.” He continues, “We also remain ready to enter into negotiations and a quick conclusion for mutually beneficial arrangements in both areas with the EU.”

However, despite deepening ties, MEPs have raised concerns surrounding India’s domestic politics, especially over the disputed northern Indian territory of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and the rights of religious minorities. In 2019, the Indian government changed the constitutional status of the Muslim majority state of J&K through Article 370 of the constitution, which rescinded the region’s special status. This was swiftly followed by mass arrests of politicians, the shutdown of mobile internet services, and a surge of additional troops into the territory.

When asked about these developments, the Ambassadors states that the special status was always a “temporary provision”, as were the measures introduced following its rescinding. “These restrictions have now been fully removed. Schools, hospitals, telecommunications and other services are back to normal. Even 4G services are being restored gradually, while almost all detainees have been released and violence is down significantly.”

Another advantage he highlights is that the state has been able to fully integrate within India now; improving access to basic education and strengthening gender and LGBTQ+ rights. “In brief, the situation today for the people in J&K is better than it was on the day the changes were made. We are committed to ensuring continued improvement and to bringing stability and prosperity to our fellow countrymen in J&K.” In October, Maria Arena, chair of Parliament’s sub-Committee on Human Rights, raised concerns about the treatment of marginalised and religious minorities, especially Muslims, as a result of changes in citizenship laws in India.

However, Jha argues that “the Indian Constitution prohibits any discrimination on the basis of religion, race, gender or any other such grounds to its citizens.” In 2019, the Indian government introduced new immigration laws that were criticised for being anti-Muslim. But the ambassador states that the changes in the laws allow minorities to acquire Indian citizenship and lead a ‘life of dignity’. He says, “These changes do not at all affect the rights of Muslims in India. Nor do they affect the rights of people from a Muslim or any faith living abroad to acquire Indian citizenship, which remains open to them under the existing law.”

He adds, “India is proud of its democratic and pluralistic heritage and its tolerant traditions and would never compromise on them.” Like Europe, India is also re-assessing its relations with China, especially following recent military clashes in June over its disputed border. However, the Ambassador is keen not to see EU-India relations purely through the prism of their relations with China.

Instead, the Indian official wants relations to, “stand on their own merit”. The Ambassador says relations should be “based on sound foundations of shared values and principles, rooted in democracy and fundamental freedoms and convergences on several issues of mutual interest and importance.”

In the coming months, one of the key priorities for the Indian Ambassador, he tells me, is to develop stronger relations with the European Parliament and MEPs, saying “We are committed to building stronger institutional exchanges between the two largest parliaments in the world. We have proposed annual exchanges at the leadership levels between the two parliaments and also sought to intensify exchanges between its members whether in the committee, friendship groups or other ad-hoc formats.”

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