EU, India and the Multilateralism Debate


Stephan Keukeleire and Bas Hooijmaaijers analyse EU-India relations within the broader context of the rise of the BRICS, IBSA and other emerging constellations of power and evaluate the resulting challenges for the EU and its views on multilateralism

EU-India relations are based on the 1994 Cooperation Agreement, which provides the legislative framework for cooperation on the ‘EU-India Strategic Partnership’ and Joint Action Plan, launched in 2004 and further strengthened and broadened in 2008.

The 2004 decision to upgrade the India-EU relationship to the level of a ‘strategic partnership’ was in sync with the growing international profile of both the EU and India. Both share common values and objectives as full-fledged democracies (Allen 2013; Grevi and Khandekar 2011; Renard, 2011). This article aims to analyse the EU-India relations within the broader context of the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) and other emerging constellations of power, and to evaluate the resulting challenges for the EU and its views on multilateralism.

‘The Irresistible Shift to the East’

The centre of gravity is moving from the Euro-Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific area and from the North and West to the South and East, and India is playing a crucial role in the tectonic shift.

There are multiple cooperation frameworks encompassing countries from the global South and East. With the exception of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the G20, in which the EU and European countries participate, these international forums have one feature in common that is quite new for the EU and its foreign policy: it is a world where the EU and Europe are largely absent, considered as far away and, in most cases, also irrelevant.

New Constellations of Emerging Powers

In its foreign policy, India approaches these new constellations of emerging powers as different entities as they simultaneously address specific issues of global governance (Bava, 2011: 60). These entities include the BRICS, BASIC and IBSA. Best known is the BRIC(S), which initially consisted of the following four emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India and China (O’Neill, 2001). They started their political dialogue on the margins of the 61th UN General Assembly (UNGA) and their ministers of foreign affairs met for the first time in the BRIC format in New York.

Cooperation in the BRIC format was further strengthened both in level and frequency when other ministers started meeting from mid-2008 onwards, eventually leading to the first BRIC summit between their heads of state or government in 2009. In December 2010, Brazil, Russia, India and China granted South Africa access to their group, which by early 2011 was transformed from ‘BRIC’ into ‘BRICS’. What unites the BRICS is the commitment to transform the mainly Western-dominated international organisations (including the UN Security Council, the IMF and the World Bank), inherited from a 20th century context, in which Europe is over-represented. The European financial crisis offered the BRICS a first major possibility to start adapting to the rules of the game in the international financial institutions.

Less visible are some other formats. The BASIC-format (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) was established in 2009 with a Joint Strategy for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen, where the four countries eventually side-lined the EU and negotiated a deal with the US. The trilateral IBSA Dialogue Forum, established in 2003 by India, Brazil and South Africa, focusses on change in international relations and trilateral cooperation in a variety of sectors including development, energy security, health policies and infrastructure. Other constellations where India is involved include the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC), the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

Gradual Transformation of the Global Political Landscape

The emerging power alliances and other multilateral frameworks listed above differ significantly in terms of scope and reach as well as in terms of coherence and impact. We should also point at the diverging interests among these parties, as well as the substantive differences in their economic, military and political power. However, our argument is that they are all part of the gradual transformation of the global political landscape. The rise and potential of, for instance, the BRICS countries needs to be placed in the context of these other partially overlapping emerging power alliances as well as multilateral organisations in the Asia-Pacific region. Thus, although none of them individually is very influential (yet), combined, they are not without consequences for the EU and its position on multilateralism. India as well as Brazil, China, Russia and South Africa share a vision on multilateralism that is marked by a preference for non-legally binding political commitments. They are not particularly proponents of all-inclusive multilateralism and they generally start from a more realist perspective on sovereignty.

The Choice for Multilateralism

The BRICS countries have also made ‘the choice for multilateralism’. However, compared to the EU, it is a choice for multilateralism based on some fundamentally different principles, when it comes to content and methodology. In terms of content, this encompasses a prioritisation of economic growth and development, and a reluctance to let economic development get restricted by concerns in other policy domains, which the EU considers as important (including human rights, environment and social protection). When it comes to methodology, it points to the choice for a pure intergovernmental approach, with decision-making by consensus, voluntary commitments, absence of treaty obligations, and a strong determination to protect national sovereignty. This view on multilateralism substantially differs from the vision supported by the EU and its member states. The EU member states in general prefer international organisations/regimes and legally binding agreements as major instruments of global governance (Wouters et al. 2012) and do not consider legally binding agreements as an assault on national sovereignty.

The principles promoted by India and other emerging powers with regard to content and methodology of multilateralism seem problematic to the EU. A major challenge in the EU-India relationship is, therefore, to overcome this diverging view on multilateralism, which also implies that the EU needs to better understand the Indian position on this issue.

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Stephan Keukeleire is a Jean Monnet Professor in European Foreign Policy at the University of Leuven (Belgium) and Visiting Professor at the College of Europe (Bruges, Belgium). He is the Co-Director of the ‘Master of European Studies: Transnational and Global Perspectives’ at the University of Leuven and coordinator of the specialised Online Resource Guide ‘Exploring EU Foreign Policy’ (

Bas Hooijmaaijers is a Research Fellow at the School of International and Public Affairs (Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China) and a Free Research Associate at the LINES Institute (KU Leuven, Belgium). Part of this contribution is based on previous work of the authors, which also provides further analysis on this topic (see Keukeleire S. and Hooijmaaijers B. 2013 & 2014; Keukeleire et al. 2011; Keukeleire and Bruyninckx 2011).

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