As part of India’s renewed focus on Europe, External Affairs Minister Mrs. Sushma Swaraj paid an official visit to Bulgaria and Spain. This engagement can be seen as India consolidating ties with these countries, given the recent highly successful visits by President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Modi to Sofia and Madrid respectively, and the overall Indian strategy of reprioritising Europe in India’s strategic national consciousness.
Notably, Bulgaria and Spain’s pivotal geographical location-at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and in the Mediterranean, and their NATO membership reflect the scope of a multifaceted Indian engagement with these countries. Their European Union (EU) membership grants a partner country like India access to not only the EU market but also helps build positive constituencies within the organisation in order to harness the EU’s diplomatic heft, economic expertise and cutting-edge technology.
The key theme of Mrs. Swaraj’s discussions with her Bulgarian and Spanish counterparts revolved around adding to the strategic and economic pillars of their bilateral partnership. As part of an increasingly institutionalised Indian approach of leveraging the diaspora, the External Affairs Minister also interacted with the Indian community in these countries.
Indian and European interests converge on a wide range of global and bilateral issues. Both are committed to a multilateral and rules based global order, which is particularly relevant at a time when globalisation is acquiring a pejorative connotation with several states looking inwards and erecting trade barriers. Therefore, preserving the gains of globalisation and promoting greater international trade are a common objective. Also, India’s positive economic outlook and ambition of securing a more constructive role on the global stage may symbiotically be nurtured by EU’s pursuit of new credible partnerships in the wake of President Trump-led U.S. creating deep fissures in the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Similarly, traditional and non-traditional security threats that affect both sides such as terrorism, cyber security, illegal migration and climate change, continue to simmer, the resolution of which calls for a global multilateral approach. Bulgaria and Spain have condemned the recent terror attack in Pulwama and have supported India’s candidature for an expanded United Nations Security Council. This convergence of strategic interests is further reflected in India’s ongoing defence and security memorandums of understanding with Sofia and Madrid. Spain’s conferment of the prestigious Grand Cross of the Order of Civil Merit to Mrs. Swaraj, in recognition of New Delhi’s role in rescuing Spanish nationals during the 2015 Nepal earthquake, highlights the potential of expanding the frontiers of bilateral cooperation to include humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Cultural affinity, reflected in the popularity of Indology and yoga in Bulgaria and Spain, remains a foundational pillar of the bilateral ties. Leveraging this cultural connect to boost tourism and people to people contacts was a key part of Mrs. Swaraj’s interactions.
Mutual complementarities also put India and the European countries in a unique position of building long-term economic linkages. Spain and Bulgaria retain vital expertise in innovation and development of sophisticated technology, both in the civilian and military spheres. This blends in with Prime Minister Modi’s development motto of modernising the Indian economy and building a knowledge-based society. European companies, thus, hold the potential to play an instrumental role in India’s transformative projects that include ‘Smart City’, ‘Make in India’, ‘Swachh Bharat’, and ‘Sagarmala’, to name a few. Their expertise could also help India stay ahead of the curve in the face of the fourth Industrial Revolution. In turn, India’s colossal market can be a game changer for the fortune of these European companies. Similarly, India’s expertise in niche areas of information technology and pharmaceuticals can help Indian companies to expand their footprints in European markets. Any further developments in this regard, will help expand the bilateral trade which, presently, remains way below potential.
The scope and importance of these partnerships remain immense. Mrs. Swaraj’s visit underlines the ongoing Indian strategy to build greater synergies of cooperation with European countries.
Script: Rajorshi Roy, Research Analyst IDSA