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From Flirtation to Commitment

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Europe has a long history of co-operation with South Asia. But the time for dalliance has passed. Their relationship needs to move on.

India and Pakistan are well aware of their potential in global terms and have been patiently moving their figures across the chessboard of international politics. India is governed by a heterogeneous federal system that has been able to maintain a stable democracy for over half a century, although it has been threatened periodically by radical factions, regional dissent, and right-wing Hindu fundamentalism. The country’s market economy has taken root and, according to the World Bank, could achieve annual growth of 6 to 8% in the coming years (see link 1). Political stability thus seems to have been a spur to relative economic prosperity, at least for the emerging middle class.

Economic and nuclear strength

Pakistan’s military-originated regime has been busy keeping itself in power, playing an essential role in pacifying Afghanistan, and controlling the internal threat of radical Islamic factions. It is currently being accused of being partly responsible for nuclear proliferation; Libya, Iran and North Korea all seem to have acquired the necessary technology from that nation (see Alberto Comito’s article). Although it suffers from divisions in terms of ethnicity, religion and ideology, and is the neighbour of politically unstable Afghanistan, Pakistan has been determinedly opposed to India’s hegemonic influence in South Asia. And it has found unifying factors in Islam - even if religion seems to have lost political influence since September 11th - and the Kashmir conflict.

This conflict seems to have reached a new stage. Bilateral talks were held in February but it is probably too early to hope for a solution. India’s Government may be just playing the diplomatic card in order to garner support for April’s parliamentary elections and General Musharraf is still being held hostage by the more radical sectors of Pakistani society and the Kashmir separatists.

What role for the EU then? India is today a major regional power in international politics and is far ahead of Pakistan when it comes to attracting foreign investment and development aid, and promoting cultural ties. Its population is seven times bigger than Pakistan’s, its GDP per capita is approximately 30% higher, and it ranks 17 places higher in the most recent Human Development Index (see link 2). The good relationship between the EU and India, strengthened by India’s market liberalization in 1990, culminated in the 2000 Lisbon summit when the EU and India agreed to hold an annual high-level summit. The US, China and Japan are the only other powers to share this privilege.

Powers of persuasion

But although the EU has a long history of co-operation with South Asia, it faces tough competition from major world powers. Russia is currently India’s largest defence partner; the US is present in Pakistan’s backyard, Afghanistan, and is simultaneously trying to strengthen its ties with India. Bearing in mind that India has a privileged relationship with these global powers, and that over the past years India’s foreign policy has tended to adopt a country-by-country approach – sometimes ignoring the political institutions in Brussels –, the EU’s task appears extremely difficult. In addition, the surprising last-minute absence of Silvio Berlusconi during the last EU-India Summit held in November 2003, and the fact that both sides exchanged subtle diplomatic blows, especially in the terms of trade, have not helped the Union’s cause in India.

But the potential is there, especially in creating an alliance between the EU and India in international politics. Both believe a multipolar world to be beneficial to international relations and are staunch defenders of multilateral agreements and instruments, such as the Kyoto Protocol, and a more relevant role for the UN. Moreover, India has not forgotten the US’ partnership with Pakistan during the Cold War. The EU is still therefore a favourable diplomatic partner.

The importance of good self-promotion

One way both sides could be brought together is to increase and deepen interaction between their respective civil societies. For example, continental Europe has recently woken up to the importance of this region and think tanks and academic institutions in France, Belgium, Germany and Scandinavia are now focusing on South Asian issues, thereby challenging the usual Anglo-Saxon monopoly. Also, surprisingly, every EU Member State has its own cultural centre in New Delhi, and sometimes even government-sponsored research institutes. But there is a lack of information about the European Union as a whole. The European Commission delegation in the Indian capital is an official representation and is far from having the cultural impact of a non-governmental European organization or an EU cultural centre.

In the long term, the EU and India both have much to gain from strengthening human, social and cultural ties. On the Indian side there is interest, as witnessed by the large number of Indians who are studying European languages. But, as always, the as yet unanswered question is whether on the European side competition and differences between nation states can be put aside in order for Europe to become a committed partner to South Asia.