The EU and India – Time to Reboot

01-Sep-2015 #Digital India

Launched more than a decade ago, the EU-India strategic partnership seems to be in static-mode. Negotiations on the EU-India free trade agreement, the partnership’s biggest initiative, remain at an impasse and cooperation on foreign policy issues is negligible. Political engagement too remains at an all-time low given that the EU and India have not held an annual bilateral summit since their last one in 2012. As it stands, the EU-India strategic partnership is in desperate need of a reboot.

Yet as India strongly pursues its urban development agenda and transformation to a global manufacturing hub, the EU and India could explore an EU-India Partnership on Urbanisation. Such a partnership would not only open up significant mutually beneficial opportunities thereby circumventing jammed FTA negotiations, but would also reinstate the strategic quotient in the partnership.

The Modi government’s flagship ‘Make in India’ programme can be the perfect enabler for such a partnership. India’s burgeoning infrastructure sector, pegged as a $1 trillion-dollar global investment opportunity, could offer significant economic opportunities for the EU’s member states struggling to achieve higher growth rates. It could also strategically advance India on its path towards modernisation through collaboration with Europe’s highly developed societies.

Two areas that the EU and India could focus upon under such a partnership could be Smart Cities and the Digital Agenda. A smart city is a place where the traditional networks and services are made more ef­ficient with the use of digital and telecom­munication technologies, for the benefit of its inhabitants and businesses. The EU already has a pan-European Smart Cities platform called the ‘European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and

Communities’ initiated by the European Commission in July 2012 which brings together European cities, industry lead­ers, and representatives of civil society to smarten up Europe’s urban areas with concrete commitments involving more than 3,000 partners from across Europe. Tapping into the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities would be a practical first step within any EU-India Partnership on Urbanisation.

The digital arena represents an even bigger opportunity. India has one of the largest and fastest growing populations of internet users in the world, the third largest internet population in the world today, after China and the US. India is also the second largest market for social networking giants Facebook and LinkedIn. Yet the potential is far greater! Fixed broadband reaches less than 10 per cent of Indian households, and 3G and 4G mobile penetration is less than 5 per cent. There is also a strong urban-rural divide, with mobile penetration in rural areas standing at a mere 40 per cent. On the other hand, basic broadband is available in the entire EU while fixed technologies penetration stands at 97 per cent. Coverage in rural áreas is round 90 per cent. There is much that India could gain from EU experience and expertise in digital infrastructure and innovation.

There is no doubt that better digital connectivity will lead to better governance and delivery of services. Importantly, the Modi government also seems committed to India’s digital empowerment. The BJP led government plans to lay 700,000 km Internet cables in three years compared to 1 million laid out in the last 30 years!

As one of the major global actors however, the EU remains relatively absent from the urbanisation scene in India when compared to other players like China, Japan, or the US. An EU-India Urbanisation Partnership could be the way forward bringing together the EU’s 28 member countries that could match any global rivals and successfully relaunch the EU-India strategic partnership.

A9RAA79Gauri Khandekar is Director Europe at Global Relations Forum, based in Brussels.

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