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Why Blair is good news for India

By Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
Last updated on: September 07, 2005 00:20 IST
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Let's start with a Kaun Banega Crorepati kind of question: Who is India's biggest partner in terms of trade and actual foreign direct investment inflow?

And if you say, 'the United States,' you won't even win a paisa on the popular Indian television quiz show.

The answer, my friend, is the European Union, with partnerships in India worth 33.2 billion Euros.

Despite that, the 25-nation EU has a low-key presence in New Delhi. Even after 42 years of its inception in 1963 (it had six member countries and was known as the European Economic Community then), a senior government official was clueless about the address of the EU delegation in the capital.

India started taking ties with the EU seriously after the first EU-India summit in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2000.

Not too many people outside Delhi are aware that the maintenance of Humayun's Tomb and Qutb Minar has been improved with EU funds. In the last three decades, the EU has given more than Rs 100 billion for economic and developmental co-operation projects in India.

"While trade and commerce are necessary for our lives, it is culture which makes our lives worth living," says Francisco da Camara Gomes, head of the European Commission in India.

The sixth EU-India summit takes place in New Delhi on Wednesday. An action plan to galvanize the strategic partnership between the EU and India is on the cards.

Currently, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is the EU President. And that brings him to India along with his lawyer wife Cherie Blair.

This September, India celebrates the European Union Cultural Week. There will be exhibitions, film screenings (including Spanish and Swedish films) and musical events. There will even be an exhibition on Bertha von Suttner, who, in 1905, became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. She wrote the best-selling anti-war novel Lay Down Your Arms.

But the India-EU summit will not be just about cultural events. With 7/7 fresh in British memory, terrorism and illicit drug trafficking will also be in a sharp focus.

Both sides attach due importance to nurturing the relationship. EU sees India as a nation with healthy democracy. And a nation that is changing dramatically and fast.

It lauds India's diplomacy and policy measures on economic matters. The newfound depth in the US-India relationship hasn't got unnoticed either.

The EU supports the peace process with Pakistan, which it claims 'will bring enormous benefit to the region.'

Besides the rhetoric about 'shared values and mutual respect,' both India and EU have now understood that besides business, they should talk politics, too.

They now want to engage on the issue of multilateralism. Both sides want to work closely on international treaties, and conventions regarding trade, security, environment, development and human rights. 

EU and India are cooperating in the Doha Development Agenda of the World Trade Organisation. It is in a crucial stage and its sixth ministerial meeting is fixed in Hong Kong.

The Doha agenda is crucial for developing countries because it will set the ground rules for future trade.

On many of the above issues, EU and India are closer in their opinions than India and America.

On the issue of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee has said that 'instead of reprimanding India for seeking energy resources in Iran, the US should be supporting the Indo-Iranian-Pakistani rapprochement, as something of benefit to its people.'

On issues related to the United Nations, India can expect more interaction with the EU.

The EU is working diligently with Indian non-governmental organisations in sectors like health education in a big way: in about 118 projects, worth 65 million Euro.

The most ambitious of the projects -- worth Rs 8 billion -- are on in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

The who's who of the EU corporate sector are accompanying Blair.

Sir Digby Jones, chief of CBI, a business organization representing 240,000 businesses; the Airbus managing director and the Rolls Royce chairman are among them

Infrastructure, insurance, aviation and banking sector wizards are also in New Delhi to participate in the EU-India business summit.

Interestingly, as Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is readying ally communist parties leaders to accept FDI in retail trade – the announcement is expected soon -- Bestway Group, the UK's second-largest cash and carry operator, is represented by its chairman, Mohammed Pervez.

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi