EU and India to resume talks to forge free trade deal

A deal could be a boon for the two economies, especially as they look to rebuild after the devastating blow dealt by the pandemic

European Council President Charles Michel, right, walks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during an EU summit in Porto, Portugal, Saturday, May 8, 2021. On Saturday, EU leaders hold an online summit with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, covering trade, climate change and help with India's COVID-19 surge. (Violeta Santos Moura, Pool via AP)
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The EU and India agreed to resume long-stalled talks on a free trade deal in an effort to strengthen their economic co-operation.

The deal was struck at an online summit between EU leaders and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday and aims to reboot relations and boost co-operation across key fields including digitalisation, health and climate change.

“We have today agreed on concrete steps to expand this strategic partnership,” EU Council president Charles Michel said after the summit. “We agreed to launch negotiations on mutually reinforcing agreements on trade, investment protection and geographical indications.”

The EU’s push to deepen its ties with the world’s largest democracy as well as other Asian nations comes as tensions with China grow and sanctions against European officials call into question the bloc’s recent investment pact with Beijing. The EU accounted for € 96 billion ($117bn) of trade in goods and services in 2020, 11 per cent of India’s total, just behind China and the US, according to the European Commission.

Trade talks between the EU and India were suspended in 2013 amid persistent differences over issues like cutting tariffs, intellectual property and the rights of Indian professionals working in Europe. A deal could be a boon for the two economies, especially as they look to rebuild after the devastating blow dealt by the pandemic.

Alongside the trade talks, the sides also agreed to launch negotiations on two separate agreements on investment protection and on geographic indications - those that protect products that have a specific place of origin.

Still, EU officials warn that even though there’s willingness to re-engage in trade negotiations, progress is still scant on a lot of key areas including Indian tariffs for goods - especially cars - and intellectual property rights.

The deal with Europe comes just a few days after India and the UK pledged a “quantum leap” in their relationship and said they aim to double their trade by 2030. While the announcement is part of Britain’s efforts to strengthen diplomatic and economic alliances after leaving the EU, talks with New Delhi on a formal free-trade agreement are not expected to start until the fall.

The talks with Europe come during a difficult time for India, which is currently engulfed in a devastating wave of Covid-19 infections that could see it suffer the world’s biggest death toll from the pandemic. The two sides will seek to establish a framework to co-operate on tackling the pandemic and on ensuring access to Covid-19 vaccines, diagnostics and treatments.

Still, the timing of the discussion is somewhat awkward for the EU, which has voiced skepticism but no unified response to a US proposal to suspend intellectual property rights for coronavirus vaccines – a proposal originally supported by countries including India.

Growing European opposition to the US stance is stirring debate about the wisdom of waiving vaccine patents, which would require a lengthy process at the World Trade Organisation. It’s also exposing long-simmering tensions over US vaccine nationalism, which has left the EU and others to carry the weight of meeting global demand.