Forgetting About Europe

It has not escaped notice that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s many perambulations around the world have, so far, ignored Europe – if refueling stops for his aircraft are ignored. There was at least one abortive attempt to have a summit with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, though that seems to have been somewhat poorly thought through.

Reports now say Modi will go to Germany in March or April and drop by some other European states along the way. Britain, France, Spain and Italy barely get a mention in the foreign policy discussion of Modi’s aides – and Modi’s private conversations.

It is not that the new Indian leader doesn’t like some parts of Europe. Modi has a soft spot for Denmark – the only Western state to decline to isolate him diplomatically. He recognizes the potential importance of Germany to his renewable energy ambitions and his “Make in India” manufacturing plans.

Europe, strangely marginal in India’s strategic thinking despite being such an important economic partner, seems destined to remain marginal with the Modi government for a number of reasons.

One, Britain was seen as the prime villain in the imposition of a visa ban on Modi. Those close to Modi always believed that if London changed its mind, the European Union would follow and, finally, the US would change as well. British firms were known to be discriminated against when Modi ruled Gujarat. But Europe’s reputation in India over this issue has been generally negative.

Second, Modi’s foreign policy has a huge economic component to it: country X matters because it can contribute to “Make in India”, provide capital to keep the current account healthy, and so on. Europe’s economic contribution to India is immense, but it is not the stuff of exciting diplomacy. Much that happens, happens automatically because it is ultimately about firm-to-firm ties and those are strong. Britain and Germany are overwhelmingly important on the economic front to India, making New Delhi prefer to expend political capital on bilateral ties with these specific countries.

Three, Europe is showing its worst side these days. The results of the Greek parliament polls may revive the Eurozone crisis. But this time Germany, economically becalmed, will be less interested in providing a bailout. The rise of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim parties has unnerved many Indians. In any case, with the UK shutting the door to a Indian migration in favor of European Union citizens, the Indian immigrant story to Europe is now almost dead. That even the Eastern Europeans were unable to find common cause after their historical nemesis, Russia, swallowed up Ukraine is a sign of the continent’s weakness. And the list goes on. Europe, in effect, continues to punch well below its weight strategically and India, in return, invests little with Brussels because it doesn’t see any purpose.

Modi will almost certainly find that he cannot live without Europe and that he needs to engage with them. But Europe’s present condition underlines a sentiment that the continent’s greatest success was its social contract with its societies, and this is unraveling.

Copyright © 2015 the Hindustan Times

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