News | Europe - South Asia Drafting a Progressive Agenda for India–EU Engagement

Closer relations between Brussels and New Delhi are inevitable, but how can they benefit working people?



Anuradha Chenoy,

Photo: IMAGO / Christian Spicker

Europe occupies a special place in the Indian popular imagination. The continent is seen as a place of high culture, liberal-progressive ideas, technological development, and unique diversity, but also the continent where colonialism first emerged and devastating world wars began. More than anything, Europe is the place with which India wants to “catch up”.

Anuradha Chenoy is an Adjunct Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India and an Associate of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam.

The experiment of the European Union, in which diverse nations have come together while preserving their individual identities to engage in comprehensive discussions prior to reaching shared policies, is viewed with amazement. Europe’s relations with the US, China, and others are also topics of interest here, and debates in the European Parliament addressing events in Asia and India are followed attentively.

Generally speaking, there is a broad consensus in Indian politics and society that the EU can be a good partner to India. After all, Europe is a leading trade partner, and one of India’s top foreign direct investors and providers of high technology to India. Thus, India’s relations with Europe likely will and indeed should be further enriched and deepened. But while closer relations may appear inevitable, it’s worth asking how these can be shaped in a progressive manner. To do that, we must first take a look at the state of EU–India relations today and how progressive actors on both sides evaluate the status quo.

International Exchange and Inspiration

The gap between government positions and progressive voices in the political spectrum and in civil society is usually wide, but is especially wide in Asia and in states with little tolerance for dissent. In India, there is a real disparity between official state narratives and those of progressive groups and political parties on questions like neoliberalism, development, climate, human rights, the environment, the constitution, social justice, trade, geopolitics, and more.

After 1991, the Indian government retooled its economic policy and initiated reforms in line with neoliberal orthodoxy concentrated on privatization, liberalization, and globalization. Institutions based on a “mixed economy” with both a private capitalist and a large state sector were dismantled in an ongoing reform process that continues to this day. Three decades since these reforms began, India has witnessed high growth that brought millions out of poverty, but problems like inequality, corporatism, and other challenges have also increased.

Left-wing forces in India generally put forward a critique of neoliberalism similar to arguments Europeans will be familiar with, warning of a corporate-driven economy focused on high profits, the entrance of multinational corporations that stunt local manufacturing, and unacceptable levels of inequality with wealth concentrated among the top 1 percent. Interaction between European and Indian civil society strengthens both the critique as well as policy suggestions of progressive forces in India, as they address challenges like the importance of the social sector, the need for corporate accountability and transparency, or strengthening the right to information.

Exchange with Europe has also strengthened the claims of workers’ and agricultural unions in India. For example, Indian trade unions have a positive view of Germany’s Supply Chain Due Diligence Act enacted in January 2023. India already has labour laws that comply with this act to prevent child labour and all forms of forced labour. Nevertheless, the enforcement of labour standards in India is often deficient in many production units that constitute integral parts of global supply chains, primarily due to the informal nature of labour relations in these areas.

The Supply Chain Act makes German companies buying from Indian companies responsible for compliance. This is effective, as European buyers will exert pressure on Indian companies seeking to export, while governments face a greater risk of embarrassment over violations of labour and environmental legislations. In that same sense, the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive is also highly anticipated and will hopefully apply to an even broader spectrum of Indian export production.

European NGOs working in India, for their part, relay the experience of resistance against liberalization and discussions on rights and standards in India to discussions in the European institutions. Debates in the European Parliament on these issues in turn echo back in India. This sort of intellectual exchange should increase and deepen.

Strengthening the Feminist Agenda

The issue of women’s equality and economic and political participation at all levels is crucial to the Indian development agenda. Over the years, international actors like the UN as well as the Indian women’s movement have cited mounting evidence that empowering women leads to deeper development gains and higher overall GDP. This knowledge has gradually trickled into the consciousness of the Indian political class.

Recent elections have shown that rural and urban women are becoming an important electoral constituency. This change is evident especially in rural constituencies, where women previously voted in accordance with men in their families and as caste groups. The Indian government has encouraged women to open individual bank accounts, an important tool for improving women’s welfare.

At the same time, the status of women in Indian society remains precarious. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), labour market participation among women has been declining, dropping from 32 percent in 2005 to 19 percent in 2021. Indian women work disproportionately in the informal sectors and perform more unpaid work. Programmes such as the Direct Benefit Transfer, which provides welfare funds directly to individuals, should be seen as temporary measures. The long-term goal is gender parity in employment and proper working conditions for all women.

The issue of human rights is very sensitive for the Indian government, much like it is for governments in other regions outside of the West.

Patriarchal attitudes and violence against women are rampant in India, and progressive MEPs should continue pressing the issue in the European Parliament, while proposing stricter laws on violence against women and sexual harassment at home. These sorts of signals boost women’s groups in India to struggle for similar laws.

European non-profits like the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation have been especially engaged with Indian groups on issues concerning inequality, gender equality, and corporate accountability. This sort of interaction has been extremely beneficial and needs to be nurtured. Other European NGOs have been working on feminist foreign policy with Indian women’s groups. Progressive forces in the EP should continue to support the feminist agenda and exchange between progressive women parliamentarians as part of EU policy.

Protecting People and the Planet

The issue of human rights is very sensitive for the Indian government, much like it is for governments in other regions outside of the West. Western media often report on curbs on dissenting voices, the rise of religious nationalism, majoritarian identity politics, and instances of violence and discriminations against minorities, yet the Indian government argues that the country has institutions to handle these strictly internal matters.

The Indian government would probably not accept social and environmental clauses that are legally binding as conditions for any kind of trade agreements, and civil society groups that pursue civil liberties can be censored by government agencies. Nevertheless, progressive and most opposition parties do raise civil rights and environmental issues in the parliament, and there are domestic debates around these questions.

On climate, India rejects Western pressure to enact a quick end to fossil fuels and shift to exclusively renewable energy sources. The Indian government presents itself as a major player in green energy. At the same time, it argues that as a developing country, it lacks the resources to abandon fossil fuels overnight. Delhi rejected the G7 objectives of net-zero emissions by 2050 during the 2021 G20 meeting, and coal remains central to the Indian economy.

At the same time, India is in the process of adopting green technologies and advertises that it is developing solar power. Reports show that India produces and uses more solar energy than most other countries, including China and the US. India has established the National Clean Energy Fund as part of its pledges made at the twenty-eighth Conference of Parties (COP). While the Climate Finance Working Group of India proposed that some 1.5 billion US dollars would be needed, the fund is currently only about half as large. The Indian government is now asking large corporations to contribute their fair share.

Many Indian progressive forces share the government’s concerns around a more gradual energy transition. Fearing the consequences of climate change, some environmental groups in India pressure the government to hasten the green transition. Moreover, many development projects in the country devastate protected environments and displace local communities, such as infrastructure projects that threaten the Mumbai coast line and entire regions in the state of Himachal Pradesh.

Progressive MEPs can push the EU to support India’s solar programme, for example, while in bilateral discussions, issues such as compensating for the human costs of development are crucial for a just energy transition.

When it comes to questions of social justice, European NGOs actively collaborate with civil society groups addressing issues like equality, social justice, and worker education. Agreement also exists on questions like multilateralism and protecting the climate. The Left in the EP needs an approach that understands the problems facing developing countries and their desire to “catch up” and bolster growth while somehow pursuing a just energy transition. Some segments of Indian academia and civil society have discussions on what a just transition could look like, but they have not entered mainstream debates.

Free Trade Entanglements

Talks around the EU-India Free Trade Agreement (FTA) have been long and drawn out. The two potential partners appear to be pursuing different goals.

The EU wants the FTA to pull India further into the global economy, strengthen global trade governance, and allow easier entry of European goods into India, making it easier for investments to flow in and profits to flow out. They would like lower tariffs on European cars, agricultural products, and wines. Lastly, they want India to align with their standards. As it is, the EU frequently prevents Indian agricultural and other goods, such as pharmaceuticals, from entering its markets.

The EU relaunched the FTA negotiations in June 2022, and five rounds have taken place since. A senior EU official who attended the G20 meetings in Delhi said that there is no “fixed deadline” for the talks, as it was the substance rather than the date that counted. Thus far, the main bone of contention has been India’s hesitation to sign on to anything that involves human rights.

Many progressive forces in India support the government’s arguments, as they also believe in the need protect the agricultural sector.

India, for its part, is determined to promote the “Made in India” brand and emerge as a global power. The country is positioning itself as a manufacturing centre to harness its growing domestic economy and middle class, and support its rise. Part of that strategy entails protecting domestic agriculture and encouraging European manufacturing in India as opposed to importing finished products, and transfer of high-end technology.

Differences around tariffs on European cars, wines, and dairy products, along with liberalizing the visa regime for Indian professionals has led to an impasse in the talks and sparked disputes between the two over patents and services in the WTO.

The India government argues that India would be a net trade loser from an FTA, primarily as a result of lost revenues from lower tariffs, despite some gains expanding the services sector. A study by Sussex University and Indian NGO Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS) indicates trade in goods would yield only ambiguous welfare effects. An India–EU Trade and Technology Council (TTC) has been set up to shape bilateral cooperation in technological development and set standards for emerging technologies. This must become a more vibrant body to be effective.

Many progressive forces in India support the government’s arguments, as they also believe in the need protect the agricultural sector. More radical forces reject the FTA entirely, as they expect the impacts on small producers to be disastrous and criticize the lack of transparency and civil society participation in the negotiations.

The European Left needs to ensure that women-led projects and welfare policies are included in FTA proposals. The Left should put forward proposals for a more innovative FTA between India and the EU, one that would provide advantages not only to EU exporters of finished goods but also to the Indian agricultural sector. The European Left can suggest offering assistance in helping Indian agriculture meet EU standards through various methods. The Left in the EU should also encourage the EP to consider Indian pharmaceuticals’ entry into EU and the global market, as lower prices will help consumers as opposed to the profits of pharmaceutical giants.

India is looking for tech partners in all fields, from defence to microchips and medical technologies to promote its own self-reliance. Sections in the FTA like opening service sectors to Indian professionals should be emphasized. Progressive groups in the EU should explain this position and promote collaboration towards mutual benefit.

Security in a Multipolar World

The Russia-Ukraine war, the rise of China, and the United States’ continued assertion of a hegemonic global position has led to a polarization in which the EU has strengthened its support for NATO and Ukraine. On China, the EU appears divided.

India, by contrast, is committed to a multipolar international system, neutrality, and refused to sanction Russia. It even profits from discounted Russian oil imports. As far as China is concerned, India believes if Western companies shift and look for new manufacturing locations, India can be a beneficiary.

India is committed to strategic autonomy, non-intervention in internal affairs, and reforms towards a more democratic multilateralism. This geopolitical position enjoys consensus across India’s political spectrum, including among progressive groups. On Indo-Pacific issues, India joined the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). Many believe India can use QUAD to focus on cyber and maritime security issues while staying away from any position that would will entail militarization against third countries.

As India and the EU maintain relations at multiple levels, spanning from state-to-state interactions to people-to-people connections, progressive groups on both sides should also maintain ongoing dialogues.

Joining QUAD is typical of India’s balancing act, whereby it seeks to develop strategic relations with both the West and Russia. India’s progressive forces advocate that the Asia-Pacific region remain free, open, inclusive, and based on fair competition, and oppose India joining any military alliance. They generally oppose a “bloc mentality”. Left parties in India opposed joining the QUAD and issued statements that India should leave the forum.

The European Left can support strategic autonomy and show how India has gained from this position, and is leveraging its geopolitical role to welcome European companies for joint manufacturing and industrial production in India. EU–India collaborations can be suggested on common projects in Africa and ASEAN linked with development assistance, technology, support for global disarmament, and more.

Building a Stronger Partnership in Parliament

There are a number of actions that progressive parties in the European Parliament to strengthen relations between the EU and India in a positive way. These include:

  • Interacting and imparting innovative and successful techniques used by the EU’s agricultural and farming sector to support Indian ambitions for attaining food security and link with the Indian agricultural sector.
  • Continuing to focus on a paradigm that centres women at all levels but especially in informal sectors, agriculture, care, IT, and others.
  • Collaborating with women’s groups and women’s studies programmes on women being equal partners in development policy as well in foreign policy and decision making.
  • The EU–India Agenda for Action 2025 provides for cooperation on a number of issues like clean energy, climate, water, migration, mobility, and counter-terrorism. These are human security issues that the European Left can support by carrying out joint studies and surveys on the status of these issues and developing joint programmes with policy makers, academics, universities and think tanks to work out policy suggestions on each of these issues.
  • India wants endorsement of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) proposed by India in the UN General Assembly in 1996. MEPS are expected to be in favour of such a convention, encountering no significant issues. Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) talks began in 2006. Agreements are yet to be reached on some issues like services, data security, visa facilitation, market access to some goods, and intellectual property rights on pharmaceuticals. Trade between India and the EU has grown, making the EU India’s biggest trading partner of India. Left MEPs ought to demonstrate that their partnership with India encompasses not only trade and investment but also issues related to human security, such as health and education.

As India and the EU maintain relations at multiple levels, spanning from state-to-state interactions to people-to-people connections, progressive groups on both sides should also maintain ongoing dialogues. Many ideas have been exchanged thus far, contributing to the discussions as well as policy decisions which then filter into the larger civil society and public discourse.

India and the EU are at a point where EU–India relations should move from “potential” to more “like-mindedness”. This means that both partners have to reason out how the other is thinking and what the points of compatibility and convergences are that can be further developed.

The foundations between progressive groups of India and the EU have been laid. The next steps and processes should continue in a systematic way.