India has been witnessing a series of high-profile visits from Europe over the past few weeks and this is set to continue

India has become a hub of activity recently, despite its unpopular position in the West on Russia. On the heels of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit to India, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has now visited Delhi.

She had visited the Indian capital several times as a German politician and defense minister; this was her first as the President of the European Commission. Her visit came at a challenging time, as Johnson, who despite protests from different segments in the UK, was in India to encourage trade and to push ahead the Enhanced Trade Partnership (ETP) which envisions doubling UK-India trade by 2030.

He also was looking to boost the UK-India Free trade agreement negotiations (FTA) which started in January 2022. By all reports, Johnson’s visit was very successful and the crux of Brexit was the EU-British trade competition, especially in the 2.4 billion people strong Commonwealth of which India is a member.

Boris Johnson in India
The United Kingdom was almost 100% supplier of India’s defence equipment in the 1950’s. In 2020, it was reduced to around 1% of the $70-80 billion that India spends annually on defence. Johnson was aiming at clawing back into the defence segment, which is lucrative for the UK and had to be ignored during the UK’s EU membership, given competition rules.

Johnson tried, during his visit, to shore up the UK’s sales in this lucrative market while announcing investments in the Green economy, technology Unicorns etc. to a tune of £1billion. Flying directly to Ahmedabad, the erstwhile capital of Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state and more importantly Mahatma Gandhi’s home state, Johnson all but atoned for all his predecessors’ actions in 190 years of colonialization with the show he put on, which frankly surprised experts and observers.

What now remains to be seen is if Von der Leyen has triumphed Johnson’s act and if Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio is able to continue with Von der Leyen’s momentum when he visits Delhi in May.

EU-India Relations

EU-India relations need urgent resurrection and Von der Leyen’s agenda was to make sure that the EU does not lose out to the United Kingdom. The only difference from the wars of the 1600’s to capture the lucrative Indian market is that European powers are now almost united in their approach to India and India is now almost a great power again, with a strong centralized government in New Delhi unlike the 600+ kingdoms back then.

India’s relations with the West, especially Europe, have been traumatic over the past centuries. As Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar summarized at the Atlantic Council meeting in 2019, “India actually had two centuries of humiliation by the West because the West, kind of in its predatory form came into India in the mid-18th century and continued for almost 190 years after that… the history of India and the West is also a history of really a famine, of slavery, of opium trade, so that is a very dark side to all of this.”

While a large part of India’s colonial past is connected to the United Kingdom, France, Portugal and the Dutch were also colonizers of India, having together subtracted today’s equivalent of $45 trillion in over 200 years of colonialization.

After 75 years of independence from Britain and 60 years of independence from Portugal, EU-India relations still carry tensions from a common past. The EU has been rather generous in its arms supplies to China and Pakistan, while stonewalling India. One of the reasons why India depends on Russia for around 49% of its arms imports, is due to repeated reluctance from Germany, France and Italy to support arms sales to India over the past two decades. This is now about to change, given the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While many expected strong language on Russia and Ukraine during Von der Leyen’s visit to India, it is now clear that her visit was to protect the European Union’s trade and strategic interests and to stake the European Union’s claim to a joint future.

She spoke at the prestigious Raisina Dialogue, organized jointly by the Observer Research Foundation and the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). She participated in the International Solar Alliance meeting and announced a joint EU-India Trade and Technology Council after her meeting with Prime Minister Modi. The Trade and Technology Council is the EU’s second, the first council was established with the United States. For India, this is a first. This move arguably raises the importance of the EU-India relationship to the same strategic level as the US-EU relationship and is a great step for mutual supply chain resilience.

Her meeting with Indian youth to promote the European Green Deal as well as her visit to Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial at Raj Ghat in New Delhi were a part of the same charm offensive to counter UK PM Johnson’s visit to Mahatma Gandhi’s famous Sabarmati ashram, trying to wash off the title of “naked fakir” given to Gandhi by one of his predecessors, Winston Churchill.

Von der Leyen, during her visit, also relaunched the discussions for the EU-India Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which has been stalled for 15 years. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a wakeup call for Europe on the need to work with the world’s most populous democracy to move its dependence from Russia and the need for the European Union to diversify its market dependence on China. The EU-India Trade and technology Council is an important step in that direction, which also kick-starts cooperation in key segments, without waiting for the finalization of the FTA.

Luigi Di Maio in India
The season of high-profile visits from Europe to India will continue with Italian Foreign Minister Di Maio scheduled to visit India in May. This will be the first high profile visit from Italy to New Delhi, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Rome for the G-20 heads of state event in October 2021. Italy does not share the baggage of colonialization that other European powers do and has had an exceptional relationship with India on a people-to-people basis. However, this has not translated into a strong political alliance until now.

During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Rome, the camaraderie between him and Prime Minister Mario Draghi gives hope that Di Maio’s visit will start replacing Italy’s inordinate closeness with Beijing to a firm mutual partnership with New Delhi. The Italian company Leonardo’s decade long exile from the Indian market is finally over. A few hours after the Indian delegation left Rome, Leonardo was taken off a blacklist of suppliers where it was included due to a Milan magistrate’s corruption complaint on an AgustaWestland-India deal. Leonardo is an important player in bringing the two countries closer together with defense collaboration a mutual priority.

Italy’s Embassy in Delhi has released its “Obiettivo India 2022” guide in a timely fashion to coincide with the minister’s visit and Italy’s very capable and active envoy in Delhi Vincenzo De Luca has been travelling the country from Gujarat to West Bengal promoting Italy, Italian companies, and people to people relations.

However, despite examples from Johnson and Von der Leyen, there is a risk that the foreign minister Di Maio may squander the opportunity by trying to dictate and moralize on India’s position on Russia. While India has privately been pushing Russian President Vladimir Putin for a cession of violence in Ukraine, publicly it has abstained from admonishing Russia, instead calling for peace and respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Kerala Governor Asif Mohamed Khan, a frontrunner for the position of the President of the Republic of India when current incumbent Ramnath Kovind’s term expires in July, recently said, “India is not neutral, we want to be in a position when all options have been exhausted, to be the ones to build a bridge between both sides”, summing up what the Modi government has been trying to communicate in the past weeks.

What could we expect?
Italy should take advantage of the goodwill built by Von der Leyen’s visit to take its political alliance with New Delhi to the next level. It is time for Italy to stop sitting on the fence and firmly side with India instead of being ambiguous due to its relationships with China and Pakistan. Italy needs to increase its arms supply to Delhi, especially technology which will allow India to defend itself from Pakistan and China.

Agreements already exist between Fincantieri and its Indian equivalent Cochin Shipyards to increase Italian involvement in the ever-expanding Indian naval sector. This also creates an opportunity for the Italian Navy’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific and underlines Italy’s role as an observer of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

One of Prime Minister Draghi’s commitments to PM Modi in Rome, was to assist with India’s energy transition. With the Russian war, after defense, this becomes a very important second priority not only to wean off India’s dependence on Russian oil but also to assist India to advance its carbon-zero deadlines.

Italy’s companies now face a post pandemic secondary crisis with Russian sanctions and Russia’s inclusion of Italy in its own sanctions. India is a new, albeit complex, destination for Italian technology and luxury goods companies, to replace their dependence on Chinese and Russian markets. South Asia is currently in a foment with crises in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal, not to mention a huge security crisis with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

It is essential that Italy stand with India, the only large democracy in the region, to prevent China from taking advantage of the turmoil. Discussing joint Indo-Italian ventures to assist the flailing Sri Lankan economy and buying up infrastructure in Sri Lanka, which otherwise may fall to China, is another important opportunity that the minister should investigate.

With Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French elections, India will probably be one of his first destinations in his second term as President. Di Maio should precede Macron as the primary European power and partner of India given the timing of his visit. He has all the opportunities, above all because, unlike France, Italy is seen as an inspiration for India for its freedom struggle with Mazzini and Garibaldi as Gandhi’s heroes. In modern democracies, perception is worth as much as the substance and in India on its 75 anniversary of independence this may actually make the difference.

(The views expressed are the author's own)