How Narendra Modi overcame Ukrainian roadblocks to take India’s ties with Europe to new heights

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India’s European policy is currently visible in full measure. The visits of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula Von der Lyn in April were followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trips to Germany, Denmark and France to meet the leaders of eight countries in May. This is unusual and welcome. Working visits from India to Europe and vice versa is seeing short, focused visits without much protocol.

Prime Minister Modi interacted with eight European leaders during this visit. The efficacy of the style and the substantive elements, which are worked out well in advance yet leave space for personalised diplomacy, in which Modi excels, is established.

Modi met German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for the first time in that capacity. He met five leaders of the Nordic countries. Since the time of the first India-Nordic summit in 2018, only one of them is the same. New acquaintances were made in Copenhagen. Three of them are NATO members and Sweden and Finland intend to join NATO. Three of them are EU members. Norway and Iceland are not.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday held a meeting with German Challancer Olaf Scholz in Berlin. Twitter/@PMOIndia

In Paris, Modi met his oldest European comrade, President Emmanuel Macron, who has just been re-elected. This was a useful mix of two of the largest European countries — Germany and France — with the Nordic group, which by itself commands a greater say in European affairs now. Though small in terms of population, they have a combined GDP that is larger than Russia. France is India’s most eminent strategic partner, and Germany, the most important economic partner. The success of the visit was to introduce strategic dimensions where economics dominated and to expand functional collaboration with higher strategic congruence.

India, France call for immediate end to 'hostilities' in Ukraine - Twitter/@narendramodi

Despite the Ukraine crisis which has diverted European attention to Russia, these important European capitals opened doors to meet with the Indian leadership. Though public perceptions are often critical of India’s position on the Ukraine crisis, not only did they find the time, they also engaged substantively with Modi to create a legacy which will now broaden the partnerships with them.

This clearly brought out the dichotomy that while the public discourse in Europe does not understand India’s position and is often critical, European governments have understood India’s autonomous position. Their differing positions do not bar them from expanding the partnership with India. A strategic partnership for all of them indicates a mutual understanding of positions rather than holding each other off due to single-minded devotion to Europe.

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In the past, the Nordic countries have often approached India sanctimoniously based on their understanding of democratic values, which prevented them from engaging with a liberal India effectively. It is when the Indian opportunity hit their entrepreneurs and businessmen that the governments were coaxed into taking better positions with India, which are now manifest.

On Ukraine, there is undoubtedly a difference of opinion: All European countries clearly condemned and criticised Russia. India did not. On the impact of the crisis, how it impinges on international order, the humanitarian issues and the like, there is a consensus between India and the European countries with whom Modi interacted. This is evident in all the joint statements. India’s credentials as standing up for the UN Charter and international rules-based order is consistent for many years and are well understood within European chancelleries. This is the success of strategic partnerships.

European attention is being grabbed by the Ukraine crisis. For India, it is important to bring the fledgling Indo-Pacific policies of Germany and the EU into greater play. It is only then that they will look at China differently and perhaps reassess engagement with it.

Without ramming this point, Modi seems to have successfully brought the attention of the Europeans to the Indo-Pacific and its importance in the joint statement with the French is eloquent. The Germans were less eloquent but more detailed than anticipated. With the Nordics, it’s the Arctic, not the Indo-Pacific, which has priority.

Another major gain of the visit has been the people-to-people connect. A large Indian diaspora is now visible in all the countries that Modi visited. Their numbers have rapidly increased in recent years. Their aggregation in large meetings to meet the prime minister perhaps astonished even his hosts.

The personal engagement with the diaspora energises their efforts toward their host countries and to bring more people from there to India, as Modi sought a promise from the diaspora in Denmark. This is important because popular perceptions need to change to attune with the government-to-government engagement and the closeness emerging.

PM Modi and Danish PM Frederiksen hold conversation at the latter's residence in Copenhagen. Twitter/@PMOIndia

An important area is the reaffirmation of the importance of free trade as a driver for achieving inclusive growth and realising the Sustainable Development Goals. European businesses should view India strategically and to expand to the wider markets in the Indo-Pacific and in Africa.

The main thought during the visits is the Green Partnership, which is now acquiring strategic overtones. With Germany, the joint declaration of intent on the Green and Sustainable Development Partnership. The global green transition and environmental sustainability partnership with the Nordic countries and the wider strategic partnership with France include Climate, Clean Energy and Sustainable Development. All these countries are ready to work with India to achieve the climate goals set in Paris and in Glasgow. By the time COP27 takes place in Egypt, enhancement of the INDCs despite other current challenges of the pandemic, the economic downturn and the Ukraine crisis is attempted.

This is where India seems to be their partner of choice: All of them want to work with India for green infrastructure, economy, energy, urban mobility and the like. Germany took the lead by agreeing to offer up to €10 billion by 2030 to implement the Green and Sustainable Development Partnership. This is significantly new and additional funding, which India and other developing countries seek. The Nordic countries did not commit specific figures, but the direction they have taken certainly looks better.

India’s European policy is firmly in place after the leaders’ meeting in May 2021 and the visit of EC President von der Lyn in April. Major issues like a Trade and Technology Council and new negotiations for an FTA and investment agreement are now politically cleared. Therefore, these are not issues which are hampering bilateral relations with the EU countries Modi met. This has opened up the space for better and deeper bilateral relations, unencumbered by responsibilities to chase down the FTA or technology transfer agreements, which will now be handled at the EU level.

The mutual emphasis on reformed multilateralism shows India as a reliable partner for a rule-based international order. Europe sees Russia, the US and China as transgressors of such an order and prefers to maintain and reform the international institutions than junk them or their principles. India is emerging as an important partner which also now engages more openly on climate and trade issues than before.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Germany. Views expressed are personal.

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How Narendra Modi overcame Ukrainian roadblocks to take India’s ties with Europe to new heights
How Narendra Modi overcame Ukrainian roadblocks to take India’s ties with Europe to new heights
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