EU and India try again to bridge trade gaps - will it work this time?

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India and the EU have a long and rocky relationship when it comes to trade agreements, but that might be about to change.

There are renewed hopes that the European Union and India might finally organise a free trade agreement after many years of stalled talks and disappointment.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borell was interviewed by The Parliament magazine in New Delhi ahead of India's Republic Day earlier this month, and he said he wants to see their relationship becoming "more strategic given the importance of the Indo-Pacific region".

He added that he wants to see Europe and India working together to support multilateralism and the future of the World Trade Organisation, as well as cooperating on maritime security.

Mr Borell revealed he is keen to see negotiations towards an FTA progressing at the next India-Europe summit in March.

"Let's use the time in the run-up to 2022 [when India holds the presidency of the G20] to listen to your views of how the world should look in this century and what can be done together," he concluded.

Tentative steps towards progress

India currently only ranks ninth among the EU's trading partners and Belgian deputy of the European Conservatives and Reformists Geert Bourgois has already said he thinks it is "high time" for trade discussions to restart and for an ambitious FTA to be concluded in the long term.

Meanwhile, chair of the EU-India delegation Dinesh Dhamija also told The Parliament he has been working towards "a partial trade deal, with the plan for a full deal during this parliament's term".

India relies heavily on the EU for trade, sending €92 billion worth of goods there in 2018. This represented 12.9 per cent of total Indian trade, higher than the figures for both China and the US.

The EU has previously made clear that its objective in securing better trade relations with India is to achieve a transparent and predictable regulatory and business environment for European companies, which includes the protection of their investments and intellectual property.

Negotiations for an FTA were launched in 2007, but suspended again in 2013. The EU had become frustrated at an inability to make progress in demands for tariff reductions and market access, with other sticking points proving to be drug patents, agriculture, rules of origin and a list of sensitive items.

However, it has not ruled out working with India again and says it remains committed to an FTA "that responds to each side's key interests and is a win-win".

India is likely to be keener than ever to strengthen trade ties with its allies after dropping out of negotiations for the Regional Cooperation and Economic Partnership (RCEP), which covers large parts of Asia, last year.

Since then, Indian union commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal has already met up with US trade representative Robert Lighthizer, with the two said to have had 'fruitful' discussions on how to create equitable market access between their respective nations and a potentially major trade pact.

Mr Goyal has also said he wants to reach out to the EU, so he is likely to welcome Mr Borell's apparent desire to do the same.

An opinion piece from the Observer Research Foundation concluded that while it may be challenging for both sides to keep the momentum alive, "a free trade agreement would be especially beneficial in the wake of a new global economic downturn. The time for India and the EU is now".

Perhaps 2020 could indeed be the year that the EU and India finally put their differences aside and create that FTA.