India and Europe: Mutual Scepticism

Japan is on the nuclear brink, the jasmine revolution is withering and the Indian parliament is in an uproar over a Wikileaked document about how money was used to buy votes in favour of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Having immersed myself all day in these issues, I will write about something completely different.

No relationship that India has is more frustrating than its ties with Europe. Europeans pride themselves on their civil society, how much they represent the finest ideals of political liberalism and see themselves as being key players in the international system.

Then they run into India. India, probably the most successful democratic experiment in the developing world, is the type of country which the European elite believes should be looking to them for guidance.

But Indian leaders treat Europe, especially as a collective group, with disdain. Beijing has taken Brussels more seriously than New Delhi. As a summary of a Chatham House study on Indian views of Europe concluded: “Europe is simply unattractive to India, especially by comparison with the United States. Many Indians regard it as ‘socially and culturally protectionist’, and as offering interest only on account of its ‘exotic tourist appeal’.” (See the full study) The view of European leaders, as the latest Transatlantic Trends survey of the German Marshall Fund shows, is more constructive than that of their Indian counterparts. Asked about the likelihood of India “exerting strong leadership” five years from now, European leaders were marginally more positive than US leaders (68 to 66 per cent). But this may reflect the fact that India’s bilateral interactions with the main European countries in particular is generally positive. (See)

What is interesting in the Trends survey is the generally negative attitude that the European public takes on India. The American public are the loudest cheerleaders for the idea of a globally important India, it seems – 74 per cent, more than their own leadership. The European public is the most skeptical – 41 per cent, well below the views of their own leaders and nearly half the enthusiasm of Americans. Mind you, the European Street is generally more disinclined to believe that any emerging power is going to be at the high table of power than their own leadership or their American counterparts. The feeling is mutual. On and off surveys of Indian attitudes towards a united Europe indicate no particular hostility, but definitely no belief in the EU as being a major global player. Europe, as the Chatham House study noted, “ranks at the bottom of the list of partners in India’s multipolar understanding of the future geometry of world affairs.” Hindustan Times surveys of its readers show an equal lack of interest. Australia scores higher than all of continental Europe.

This is curious. After all, the rise of India, unlike the rise of China, is about the rise of a civil society rather than a state. And that is exactly what the EU is all about too. And yet these two societies don’t really care much for each other.

My general view is that Indians tend to be most favourable about countries who match or fulfill their own aspirations. This means countries associated with a lower middle class Indian’s access to technology, immigration and education. And increasingly with assistance to India’s own rise as a country of international influence. The US fits. The EU doesn’t.

I am not clear why Europeans tend to be dismissive of India. A key reason is probably that continental European interaction with India has historically been low and remains relatively thin and narrow. The dominant European images of India remain what they were in the US about 25 years ago: poverty, Mother Teresa, Kashmir, and so on. In addition, India’s security role is a matter of complete disinterest. Europe’s security concerns are in North Africa, the Caucasus and Russia. That is outside even India’s desired sphere of influence. Corpprate interest means this is changing. And I notice an ever larger number of European PhD students passing through my office. The decline of Britain’s profile – the traditional European liaison for India – among Indians hasn’t helped either since. No European country has stepped up to fill the gap, though Germany and the Nordics are stirring the pot a bit. (For a partial analysis of UK-India relations see.)

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