PORTO: EU leaders pose for the family photo of the European Social Summit hosted by the Portuguese presidency of the Council of the European Union at the Palacio de Cristal yesterday. – AFP

PORTO: The EU and India met at a virtual summit yesterday hoping to relaunch long-stalled trade talks and discuss how best to work together against the coronavirus pandemic battering the south Asian giant. The devastating wave of infections sweeping India has already impacted the meeting by forcing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to scrap plans to fly to Portugal to see his European counterparts.

But the 27-nation bloc and the world’s largest democracy remain determined to capitalize on growing momentum for tighter relations fueled by shared concerns over the rising might of China. “I am positive that we will be able to do a major step forward because between the EU and India there is a close relationship, but also a lot of untapped potential,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “The most untapped potential is in trade and investment.”

Modi called the meeting a “moment of profound geopolitical significance” in an editorial for news site Politico co-authored with Portuguese premier Antonio Costa, who currently holds the rotating EU presidency. “We must seize this opportunity to elevate our relationship, using the huge potential of our democratic spaces to advance trade and investment ties and to support effective multilateralism and a rules-based order,” they wrote.

EU countries have sent medical equipment and drugs worth an estimated €100 million ($120 million) to India as part of international efforts to help it fight against the flood of COVID-19 cases. The focus on the virus at the summit will be on making sure the two vaccine-producing powerhouses can maintain global supplies and monitoring the spread of variants – as well as on trying to plan together to tackle future pandemics.

“We obviously need to continue our efforts together to ramp up production, secure the necessary raw materials, and keep supply chains open,” a senior EU official said. “Leaders are going to commit to work together to better prepare for and respond to global health emergencies.” Von der Leyen said the two sides would agree a “common platform” on sequencing the COVID-19 virus to help keep track of any new variants that may emerge.

Waiving patents
Modi could also push the EU on waiving patents for COVID-19 jabs after the US threw its weight behind the proposal. European Council chief Charles Michel said the bloc was willing to discuss the initiative once a concrete proposal was “on the table”, but leaders have expressed skepticism about lifting patents. While the pandemic casts a long shadow over the summit, the key announcement is the restarting of talks with India on a free trade agreement that have been suspended since 2013.

Von der Leyen said talks would resume on a trade pact and begin on separate deals to protect investments and regionally specific products. She said that the two sides would also look to cooperate on developing cutting edge technologies including artificial intelligence and supercomputers. Negotiations on the trade deal were halted eight years ago after getting stuck on issues including cutting tariffs and access for Indian workers to Europe.

‘Elephant in the room’
It remains to be seen if India is now willing to drop an approach viewed as deeply protectionist by the EU to seal a deal this time round. But growing tensions with China could create a new impetus for talks – with one diplomat calling Beijing “the elephant in the room”. For the EU, the push comes as efforts to ratify an investment deal agreed with China have hit the buffers after relations soured over tit-for-tat sanctions.

“India for its part has also decided to invest more in its relations with the EU, driven in part by China’s growing assertiveness and Brexit, requiring New Delhi to no longer see London as its sole entry point into ‘Europe’,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote. Britain’s departure from the bloc has also created another rival for Brussels as London makes its own play to bolster trade ties with India. The British government said Tuesday it would start formal free talks with India later this year after the two sides agreed an initial package to boost trade and investment. – AFP