JOSE MANUEL BARROSO was the 11th president of the European Commission from 2004 to 2014. A former prime minister of Portugal, Barroso spoke to Shubhajit Roy when he was in India for the Delhi Sustainable Development Conference earlier this month. Excerpts:
How have India-EU relations changed during your stint as the European Commission president?
We made progress through bilateral discussions on matters of interest, like stability in the world, the fight against terrorism, sustainable development.
What about trade and the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations?
I was disappointed that we could not do more in terms of trade. During my tenure, I was happy to conclude trade agreements with South Korea, Canada and many countries in Latin America. We launched trade negotiations with Japan, the US. With India, for different reasons, this was not possible. I hope there is now momentum to see real progress. Both India and the EU can gain a lot with a more open trade regime here. The EU is the number one economic partner of India, not only in trade, but also investments and transfer of technology. That should now be the priority. By building on the good political relationship, it’s time to seize the occasion for an FTA.
Was this because of the UPA government’s lack of willingness?
I don’t think it is right on my part to make qualifications about different governments in India. I wish India all the best. The EU works with the government elected by the Indian people. I think the conditions are now there to do more, mainly in terms of trade. This occasion should not be missed.
Do you see more commitment from the Narendra Modi government?
Yes, the commitment and the sense of urgency that Modi is giving to growth and development in India is visible. And to achieve these goals of growth and development, Europe is the most important partner outside India. It is the biggest partner in trade and and investment and technology. I don’t mean only diplomatic, but also the economic agenda. For Europe, India is an important market.
Was the EU boycott of Modi for more than a decade a mistake?
I am not going to speak about the past. In Europe, the election of Modi was well-received. He is a legitimate, elected PM. India is a vibrant democracy and we saw in his statements a sense of urgency for growth and development. We believe it is very good for India. We believe Europe can partner India.
The issue of Italian marines has been an irritant in the relationship.
This is a very sensitive issue. I know that some contacts are going on between Italy and India. Let’s be frank… it’s a matter of concern in Europe. I think, with full respect for the system of rule of law in India, an appropriate solution should be found.
Is a political solution possible?
I see a political solution without putting in question the rule of law in India.
What is the impact of the Charlie Hebdo attacks on Europe?
This was not the first attack by Muslim fundamentalists in Europe, but it created a special effect because it was against the media. Because they expressed an opinion and were killed in a cowardly and cruel way, there was a spontaneous wave of indignation. People felt freedom of expression was at risk. It was this great shock that created this unity in France, and Europe. It is important to stay together, fight terrorism and fight those trying to impose their goals that are not compatible with civilised life. And, it was a wake-up call for those who have not understood the terrible threat from radical movements.
What role can India play?
I hope India can show it is possible for people, from different faiths, to live side by side. And also people with no faith. If in India, a country with a large Muslim population, it’s possible to live peacefully together, this is a very important contribution. Also, India has been a victim of terrorist attacks. India is part of the global effort against terrorism.
Of late, religious tolerance has dominated the discourse in India, especially in the wake of attacks on churches and right-wing elements making controversial statements against Muslims and Christians. This was raised by US President Barack Obama. Do you see this as a concern?
Intolerance is a concern, wherever it is. I think some pedagogical effort is necessary from leaders to tell people about tolerance. We should preach tolerance and be strong in condemning intolerance, wherever it may happen.
You have been instrumental in facilitating a gas deal between Ukraine and Russia. How do you assess the Indian position on Ukraine?
I understand the sensitivity of the issue for India in the light of India’s relations with Russia. The EU’s position was the only one it could take since it took place in Europe. Annexation by force is simply not acceptable. It’s against international law. The EU took a position on principle. At the UN Security Council, all countries condemned Russia. The only abstention was China. In the UN General Assembly, a huge majority condemned Russia. Other countries have to explain why they differed with the majority view. In India’s case, the position is explained by the relations it wants to have with Russia.