Monday, November 12, 2007

EU-India dialogue continues

Journalists lament news lost in bureaucratic labyrinth

The European Union, boasting 27 member states and with more lined up to join, has a lot of similarities with India, a federal democracy with 28 states and seven union territories. India was one of the first countries to initiate diplomatic relations with the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1962 and cemented it further with bilateral agreements in 1973 and 1981.

With the ongoing expansion of the EU, the largest financial giant in the world, and the booming economy of India, a nation of over a billion people, there has been no slowdown in the European Union’s role as India’s foremost trading partner and largest foreign internal investor.

The two nations declared on September 7, 2005 at their sixth summit in New Delhi, that they would enhance their ongoing co-operation with the creation of a pragmatic EU–India strategic partnership. According to the European commission declaration, “The action plan covers a wide range of issues grouped under five main chapters:

1. Strengthening dialogue and consultation mechanisms

2. Political dialogue and cooperation

3. Bringing people and cultures together

4. Economic policy dialogue and cooperation5. Developing trade and investment”

In view of these ambitious goals and commitments, it has come as a surprise to Brussels-based journalists that there appears to be a translucent wall shielding information from the media with regard to visits and discussions between these two strategic partners, with the exception of an odd commission press release after the visit is over.

In the latest episode of this ongoing saga, Brussels-based journalists later learned of an official visit to Brussels by an Indian delegation led by Indian Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel. This information came from a post-visit commission press release, with more details emerging from media reports out of Delhi after the minister’s return to the Indian capital.

Speaking to New Europe, concerned journalists confirmed their lack of any prior knowledge of the visit. There are numerous dialogues, including a bilateral trade agreement and the World Trade Organization (WTO) Doha Round consultations that are being discussed between the European Union and India, and those in the media are voicing concerns of an apparent lack of transparency and availability of information to journalists.

Moreover, it has yet to be explained why the Indian permanent mission to the EU stays tight-lipped about such visits. A recent informal survey of journalists interested in EUIndia relations found that none of the respondents had received any recent emails or other forms of communication from the Indian diplomatic quarters in Brussels regarding the visits or any other ongoing bilateral discussions.

It has been the standard procedure of the European Commission whenever there is a visiting foreign minister from another country, that there is usually a VIP corner (where the commissioner concerned and the visiting dignitaries give a few minutes to the Brussels press corps), if not a full press briefing. Yet somehow, we have yet to see such an opportunity in the recent past when an Indian minister or delegation is visiting.

It seems that the visiting Indian aviation minister did have a fruitful discussion and that an agreement to allow European airlines flying to India to offer multi-modal transport facilities to passengers and vice-versa for Indian air-carriers, may be in the making.

Moreover, the European Commission has been looking forward to acquiring an umbrella agreement for open skies with India, instead of the present bilateral agreements which India has with various EU member states.

Such an agreement will benefit passengers and the citizens of Europe and India. By keeping the press out of the loop, there has been a virtual blackout of these discussions and it seems the press will come to know only when such agreements are finalised and announced in a press release, buried among a plethora of other subjects. Clearly this method provides no opportunity for cross-examination of the pros and cons of the agreement, nor does it allow for discussion to fine tune the negotiations. But the talk of transparency and openness to the European citizens from the European Commission will continue as usual.

There is concern as to the process by which the VIP corners or full press briefings are arranged in the European Commission for the visiting dignitaries. Moreover, there is a consensus among many members of the media that the permanent Indian delegation to the European Union also shoulders some of the responsibility about this lack of availability of information.

On its website, the European Commission announces, “The relationship between India and Europe pre-dates history. Most of Europe owes its linguistic heritage to India — and much of its cultural base … This symbolises the relationship between India and the EU, at one and the same time very old, yet dynamic and entirely modern. Besides the political, economic and trade dialogues which tend to dominate the vision of EU–India cooperation, there is a strong supporting cultural and social interrelationship encompassing many sectors and levels of both societies.”

In view of this statement, there should be a free and frank flow of information to the press corps in Brussels in order to carry the message to the European and Indian citizens, and to strengthen the bonds between the two nations which have existed for centuries, as confirmed by the European commission.

The first ever EU-India Summit was held in 2000 in Lisbon, Portugal and seven years later Portugal again has the EU Presidency, and the opportunity to rekindle these ties, hopefully with much more transparency so that European and Indian citizens can better understand each other’s culture and points of view.

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