The India-EU summit recorded forward movement on the stalled talks on a free trade agreement (FTA) and agreed to a global Connectivity Partnership that could rival the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. However, despite pressure from Modi, the issue of granting an IPR waiver for Covid-19 vaccines remains an open question.
Close on the heels of an agreement on an Enhanced Trade Partnership (ETP) with the UK, India and the European Union (EU) agreed to resume negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that have remained stalled for eight years, i.e., since 2013. The two sides also announced a comprehensive Connectivity Partnership to build sustainable connectivity both in India and in third countries and regions such as the Indo-Pacific, Central Asia and Africa.
India’s request for an IPR waiver on Covid-19 vaccines to facilitate faster and cheaper rollout of the life-saving jabs for the greatest good of the largest number of people in the world remains a work in progress, despite President Joe Biden of the US putting his weight behind the idea.
Even as the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc with lives and livelihoods in India, the government, while addressing the needs of the health domestic health emergency, is also taking steps to ensure that it consolidates the gains of the proactive diplomacy it has pursued over the last few years so that the country can benefit once it puts the infection behind it.
These developments took place at a virtual summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the heads of state or government of all the 27 member states of the EU. Among the issues discussed, the most important, arguably, was the issue of healthcare cooperation to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
The summit was hosted by Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa as his country holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union.
“We committed to work together to better prepare for and respond to global health emergencies. We agreed to cooperate on resilient medical supply chains, vaccines and the active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), and on the application of international good manufacturing standards to ensure high quality and safety of products,” the joint statement issued at the end of the summit said.
“The Prime Minister also requested the EU’s support for our joint proposal with South Africa for a TRIPS waiver on vaccine production-related patents. The US has also supported the proposal a couple of days ago. The EU’s support at WTO for this waiver will ensure that we can scale up the vaccine production for equitable and global access and save lives,” an Indian official added.
Under WTO rules, the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) is an international legal agreement between all the member nations. This pact governs how the seven forms of IPRs, namely copyrights, trademarks, geographical indications, industrial designs, patents, layout designs for integrated circuits and undisclosed information (a.k.a. trade secrets) are to be treated.
WTO rules allow for waiver of IPRs, especially of live-saving medicines and vaccines, under certain circumstances. India’s contention is that the conditions stipulated by the WTO norms have been triggered by the outbreak of the global coronavirus pandemic. This argument has gained all the more weight after US President Joe Biden threw his weight behind the demand made by Modi that the West waive its patent and copyright on Covid-19 vaccines in the interests of humanity and in order to save, possibly, billions of lives that could be lost unless the waiver is put in place.
This issue is not expected to be resolved in a hurry. It will have to go through several rounds of negotiations, with the Western pharma lobby expected to put up a stiff resistance to the waiver of IPRs. Though the US has come out openly in support of Modi’s (and South Africa’s) position on a waiver of patents under TRIPS, the EU is expected to oppose it.
Humanity will be watching.
Meanwhile, the two sides agreed to carry on talks on both trade and investment agreements and strive to conclude them at the earliest – following the talks between Modi and his EU counterparts.
“This is a result of the political desire on both sides to harness the full potential of our economic engagement and work towards an early post-Covid recovery,” an official said.
Speaking at the closing ceremony of EU–India Business Roundtable, Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal said the country remains committed to an FTA with the EU. The Broad-based Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA), as the agreement is called, has remained in a limbo since May 2013 because of serious differences on a number of issues.
Talking about the FTA and the investment agreement, Goyal told the media: “These will be separate agreements and negotiated in a parallel track simultaneously. We are committed to concluding them at an early date. I say this because I believe that investments and trade go hand in hand and just like you have significant interest in the investment agreement... India’s interest lies in greater market access in Europe for our goods, and services.”
Elaborating on why companies in the EU region should look at investing in India, he added: “We are actively working towards improvements in our ease of doing business rankings, in our competitiveness, de-bureaucratisation processes and making procedures simpler, opening up newer sectors for more FDI and strengthening regulatory practices… Our trade is balanced and complementary. The basket of traded goods is highly diverse and technologically advanced.”
Signalling the importance the EU attaches to the resumption of trade negotiations with India, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa, the host for the summit, said the decision "is a very important sign… Today India and the EU joint statement paves the way to achieve these goals. It gives renewed political impetus to our relationship.”
For the record, about 6,000 European companies do business in India. “It is now the time to realise the full potential of our economies...,” he added.
Apart from economics, the common ground between India and the EU on geo-politics was also evident at the summit. Significantly, the Connectivity Partnership announced at the summit, which is an obvious counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is India’s first such agreement with any foreign partner covering three distinct regions.
The summit has set very ambitious goals. The two sides have to now focus on translating this intent into actual deliverables that pay dividends on the ground.
Diplomatic experts said this may take some time. However, given the fact that the push this time comes from the top – and also because both sides are dealing with the same 800-pound gorilla in the room – there is every likelihood of Indian and EU negotiators being more sensitive to each other’s point of view.
More importantly, it indicates a thawing of positions on both sides. The EU seems to be getting off its high horse from where it regularly lectured India on a variety of issues and treating the country as an equal.
And India, on its part, seems willing to go beyond its strategy so far of interacting only with the two EU powerhouses, France and Germany, on a one-on-one basis, while engaging with other members on a need basis. Instead, it is now engaging with the bloc as an ally in its global outreach.
And that could, potentially, generate massive economic and geo-political gains for both sides.