The European Union as a development superpower

By Ambassador Dr Mohan Kumar, Chairman, RIS, Dean/Professor, Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India, Former Indian Ambassador to France1

It is a truism that the European Union (EU) welcomes, prefers and supports a multipolar world; a strategic world view that is fully shared by its partners like India. More fundamentally, it is in the interest of the EU and its like-minded partners to ensure that the international order is not underpinned by a G2 system of government where the rules are essentially shaped by the US and China. This, however, entails the EU being strong enough to occupy an independent pole in the multipolar system. The EU is not quite there yet, but its friends and partners will certainly wish this to occur, sooner rather than later.

The other strategic dictum that is worth noting is this: a multipolar world is scarcely possible without a multipolar Asia. And a multipolar Asia is not necessarily a given; it needs to be ensured with collective action based on an agreed set of rules. It is my view that the EU has an important role in ensuring that Asia remains multipolar.

It is by now acknowledged by policy makers in Brussels and elsewhere that the economic and political centre of gravity is shifting rapidly towards the Indo-Pacific. This is evidenced by the fact that in April of this year, the EU Council approved conclusions for an EU strategy in the Indo-Pacific. The renewed EU commitment to the Indo-Pacific will:

  • Have a long-term focus and be based on “upholding democracy, human rights, the rule of law and respect for international law.
  • Aim to promote effective rules-based multilateralism.
  • Work together to mitigate the economic and human effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and work towards ensuring an inclusive and sustainable socio-economic recovery.

On upholding democracy, human rights, rule of law and respect for international law the EU will be faced with tough decisions. And as for promoting rules-based multilateralism, the EU will at some point need to decide how it views the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and perhaps consider joining initiatives such as the “Supply Chain Resilience Initiative” launched recently in April 2021 by Japan, India and Australia.

But for the purposes of this post, it is the last-mentioned objective, namely, working to mitigate the economic and human effects of the COVID-19 and working towards ensuring an inclusive and sustainable socio-economic recovery, that will determine EU’s credibility and standing in Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

There is an opportunity for the EU to become a “development superpower” in the post-COVID world as it pertains to Asia. For this to happen, the EU should commit to the following:

  •  The EU should refrain from imposing both tariff and non-tariff barriers on exports of goods and services from developing and least developed countries of Asia. There has been some discussion about which countries constitute developing countries. This should be based on the number of people living in extreme poverty, more than anything else.
  •  As for the movement of natural persons, fully vaccinated people must be allowed entry into EU so that students, businessmen, investors and tourists can all resume travel. Nothing can boost economic recovery as much as this for countries in Asia. On the other hand, vaccine discrimination will hurt these countries from a socio-economic point of view.
  •  Countries like India are keen to start Free Trade Agreement talks with the EU. It is incumbent on the EU, as the bigger player, to be accommodative and bring these talks to fruition at the earliest. On issues such as Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (​TRIPS) and digital trade, the EU must be sensitive to the needs of less prosperous countries.
  • The COVID-19 crisis has provided a significant opportunity to hasten the energy transition in Asian countries in line with the commitments undertaken by the Paris Climate Change Accord. But for this to happen, the pledge undertaken by developed countries to transfer $100 billion to developing countries must happen soon (scheduled to happen by 2020 but is yet to take place) and the EU must take the lead in this. The EU must also postpone application of the proposed “carbon border tax” for the regions of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. These are the two principal regions that have millions of people living in “energy poverty” and it would be grossly unfair for the carbon tax to be imposed on these countries.
  •  Vaccine inequity is another area where the EU has helped already and must do more. A “development superpower” has to behave like one: selfless, generous and agile. The Quad has already set aside funds for manufacture of vaccines in India meant for East Asia. The EU must consider funding manufacture of vaccines in India for our friends in Africa. It is true that Indian manufacturing is under pressure for the time being; but it is reasonable to expect India to emerge from this crisis and still have manufacturing capacity in the medium term.
  •  The COVID-19 crisis has brought to light a cruel digital divide in developing countries like India. Investment in ICT infrastructure is no longer a luxury. It is the backbone of the 4th Industrial Revolution. Not only is the EU expected to invest substantially in this but the EU must also be sensitive to the requirements of countries like India so that “data secure status” can be granted as early as possible. 5G is an area where the EU can really help, since it has tech companies which own this technology.
  •  The EU spends far more on connectivity than any other power in the world. Similarly, it possesses far more technology than any other power in the world. The combination of connectivity and technology (along with trade mentioned before) is the ideal recipe to work with Asia and the Indo-Pacific to deliver inclusive economic growth in the region.  

In conclusion, COVID-19 provides an excellent opportunity for the EU to step up and be a “development superpower”. The EU has always had tremendous soft power. But by creating a new development narrative and paradigm, it will have successfully converted that soft power into smart power.

This blog is a part of a series that offers insights from experts from Asia and Europe contributing to the Asia Facility policy dialogue “Transforming Asian Economies – Towards shared gains”.

1. Views expressed are personal.