Tuesday, 30 January 2007

The European Union: the power of weakness

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 4th July 2006
Dateline: Brussels, Belgium

Amongst the elegant architectural delights of Brussels, the glass and steel headquarters of the European Parliament jars the senses. Further umbrage awaits in the lobby of the heavily guarded building: pitched on the plush carpeting is an army-style tent, under a large banner that announces: Kashmir-EU Week. From inside the tent a collection of mannequins, swaddled in blood-stained bandages, gaze up from army sleeping bags. On a wall outside, hang photographs of scenes from last year's Muzzafarabad earthquake. Musharraf in full camouflage uniform holds up an alarmed Kashmiri baby; Mrs Musharraf donates blood. In a leather-bound visitor's book, Pakistan's Minister of State for Defence, Zahid Hamid, has inscribed the first entry: "The exhibition of photographs presents stark, graphic and incontrovertible evidence of the human rights violations and abuses being committed in Indian-held Kashmir in a vain attempt to suppress the legitimate struggle of the Kashmiri people to realize their right of self-determination." 

That propaganda statement by a Pakistani minister is internalized by a steady stream of visitors to this eye-catching exhibition. Has the European Parliament become the new forum for India-bashing?

No, says Neena Gill, the articulate Member of European Parliament (MEP), who chairs the South Asia delegation of the parliament. While that most EU legislators support India's stand on Kashmir, she clarifies, it takes the sponsorship of just one MEP (out of the 732 in the House) for “self-determination lobbies” like Kashmir Centre.EU, an activist group, rooted in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) and based in Brussels, to hold such an exhibition. With diplomatic and financial backing from Islamabad, these lobby groups focus an unrelenting spotlight on human rights and demilitarisation in J&K.

For South Block, none of this is serious stuff. India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has chosen haughty disdain over a public relations counter-offensive, fearing that the latter could grant legitimacy to the ubiquitous Kashmir lobby groups. That might well be the case. But this unwillingness to engage in political confrontation is symptomatic of a larger Indian myopia in Brussels. Viewed through MEA eyes, Brussels is simply not important as a political battleground. Instead, the EU is treated more like an exalted chamber of commerce that just happens to be India's largest trading partner. For years, the imposingly named Indian Embassy to Belgium, Luxembourg and the European Union has been headed not by a diplomat, but by an official from the Commerce Ministry. 

MEP Neena Gill compares Beijing's warm embrace of the EU with New Delhi's detachment. Consequently, China, even with its deficit of democracy and human rights, is a tangible presence that nobody will annoy. While India's recent growth rates have the EU eyeing India, New Delhi spurns its blandishments, looking instead towards Washington, London, Paris and Berlin. "Why can't some of the ministers who keep transiting London, on their way to and from Washington, make a short detour to Brussels?" asks Gill. “It took me five years to get a delegation from the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha to visit the European Parliament. India appears not to want to engage; it's like squeezing blood from a stone.”

The EU, it is true, gives an outward impression of political weakness and division. Member states still don't agree on a draft constitution; two have rejected it in national referenda. When Yugoslavia disintegrated and later during the Kosovo crisis, Brussels vacillated while blood-letting continued. It took NATO forces, heavily dependent on American airlift capability, to intervene on the ground. 

But despite its current weakness in the application of power, it would be strategically short-sighted to treat the EU as a political pygmy. Already half the domestic legislation in 25 member countries' parliaments merely implements decisions already taken in Brussels. It is the world's largest trading block and its combined GDP has equalled America’s. In the political realm, the EU is part of the "Quartet" that brokers the Israel-Palestine dialogue. But most revealingly, in negotiations with Iran, the EU's insistence on dialogue and negotiation has been far more successful than the United States' coercive approach. Strategist Mark Leonard notes that in its non-threatening, consensual, apparently ineffectual approach to problem-solving, the EU has demonstrated the power of weakness and simultaneously exposed the weakness of power. 

New Delhi falls short with the EU not just politically but economically as well. India's premier industry bodies, CII and FICCI, have no permanent representatives in Brussels. The EU has committed 2 billion euros to projects in India, including large amounts to such vital projects as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. But New Delhi's inability to master the regulations and legislation that govern EU disbursements means that barely 350 million euros have actually materialised, barely one-sixth of the sanctioned amount.

From October this year, there will be welcome counterpoint to the glossy billboards on Brussels’ metro railway stations, lamenting the death of human rights and calling for demilitarisation in Indian-held Kashmir: a four-month festival of Indian culture in Brussels will raise India's profile in Brussels. Using this momentum, a Joint Action Plan, signed during the EU-India summit last year, must be taken forward politically. Strategic ties with rising powers should be forged well in time. And like India, the EU is a potential giant that is already coming into its own.

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