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EU and India relaunch trade quest at coronavirus-hit summit

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PORTO, Portugal: The European Union (EU) and India are expected to further bolster warming ties on Saturday (May 8) by relaunching long-stalled trade talks and agreeing to work together against the pandemic battering the South Asian giant.

The devastating wave of COVID-19 infections sweeping India has already impacted the meeting by forcing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to scrap plans to fly to Portugal for in-person talks.

But the 27-nation bloc and the world’s largest democracy remain determined to capitalise on growing momentum for tighter relations fuelled by shared concerns over the rising might of China.

“There is a positive dynamic because there is a convergence of interests,” a European diplomat told AFP.

EU countries have sent medical equipment and drugs worth an estimated €100 million (US$120 million) to India as part of international efforts to help it fight against the flood of COVID-19 cases.

The focus on the virus at the summit will be on making sure the two vaccine-producing powerhouses can maintain global supplies – as well as on trying to plan together to tackle future pandemics.

“We obviously need together to continue our efforts to ramp up production, secure the necessary raw materials, and keep supply chains open,” a senior EU official said.

“Leaders are going to commit to work together to better prepare for and respond to global health emergencies – and this clearly includes strengthening and reforming the World Health Organization.”

Modi could also push the EU on waiving patents for COVID-19 jabs after the US threw its weight behind the proposal.

COMMENTARY: US-backed COVID-19 vaccine patent waiver has larger implications

But Europe’s main economic power Germany has already poured cold water on the efforts by insisting patent protection must remain in place while drug firms ramp up production.

“ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM”

While the pandemic casts a long shadow over the summit, the key announcement expected is the restarting of talks on a free trade agreement that have been suspended since 2013.

Negotiations were halted eight years ago after getting stuck on issues including cutting tariffs and access for Indian workers to Europe.

It remains to be seen if India is now willing to drop an approach viewed as deeply protectionist by the EU to seal a deal this time round.

“It won’t be easy or quick to reach,” an official from the bloc told AFP.

But growing tensions with China could create a new impetus for talks – with one diplomat calling Beijing “the elephant in the room”.

For the EU, the push to restart negotiations comes as efforts to ratify an investment deal agreed with China have hit the buffers after relations soured over tit-for-tat sanctions.

READ: China-EU relations face challenges, Xi tells Germany’s Merkel

“India for its part has also decided to invest more in its relations with the EU, driven in part by China’s growing assertiveness and Brexit, requiring New Delhi to no longer see London as its sole entry point into ‘Europe’,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote in a blog post.

Britain’s departure from the bloc has also created another rival for Brussels as London makes its own play to bolster trade ties with India.

The British government said on Tuesday it would start formal free talks with India later this year after the two sides agreed an initial package to boost trade and investment.

“The Indo-Pacific is an important region … Everybody is enhancing their impact in the region,” said expert Stefania Benaglia from the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

“If the EU and India don’t cooperate in the region, well they’re simply losing out and everybody else wins.”

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