Macron’s message to Modi was “Choose France”, rather than “Choose Europe”.
Since his election in May 2017, Emmanuel Macron’s leitmotiv has been his enthusiasm for multilateralism and for a strong international role for France. His visit to India certainly reflected the latter: Alongside Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he announced the signature of numerous deals, strengthening France’s role in the region.
However, unlike his state visit to China last January, where he hailed French-Chinese cooperation as a way to foster closer ties with the European Union, Europe was only mentioned once at the beginning of this Indian visit. Ultimately, it was very much a bilateral trip, with the message, “Choose France”, rather than “Choose Europe”.
The French president came with high ambitions: to make France India’s gateway to Europe, and to make India France’s first strategic partner in Asia, an ambition he made clear during the presidential campaign last year.
With Germany, Italy and the UK weakened by varying degrees of domestic political turmoil, Macron seeks to position himself as the most credible interlocutor in Europe. And with China tilting towards dictatorship and US foreign and economic policy in chaos under Donald Trump, France – and its charismatic president - is an increasingly attractive partner on the word stage.
It therefore came as no surprise that the visit resulted in significant new cooperation between France and India. On Saturday, it was announced that the two countries had signed trade deals worth €13 billion, including a €12billion contract for an Indian airline to purchase French jet engines.
But perhaps more importantly, the two sides also agreed extensive strategic and defence cooperation that commentators argue ‘has China written all over it.’
The Indian Ocean region is one of the main international trade routes where India’s historically dominant position – and Europe’s gateway to Asia - is being challenged by China’s development of a trade, infrastructure and to a certain extent military network. In a clear message to China, Macron asserted that the region “cannot become a place of hegemony”.
Macron and Modi also signed a joint strategic vision that aims to ensure freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean and that provides for the use of each other's military facilities. France opened its La Réunion naval base to Indian warships, and might offer access to Djibouti and Abu Dhabi at a later stage. It remains to be seen what the Indians will be offering.
With this in mind, it should be remembered that there are precedents of important state visits to India where comparable announcements were made but ultimately didn’t bring forth the level of cooperation expected. One will need to follow the next steps of the exchanges to see whether they will match the rhetoric. It is also worth noting that at the end of the China visit, Macron promised to come back every year. No such promise was made in India.
Yet whatever benefits the visit will bring to India-France cooperation, it is clear that it did little to boost the EU’s interests. The EU would prefer that India engage with it as a bloc, but India tends to prefer bilateralism, playing on intra-European competition and their contrasting attitudes on human rights in India. Macron’s visit will have done little to change this.
EU-India relations are strained by difficulties and misconceptions, but they have much in common: they are both constituted of 28 states, with different languages, social and cultural systems, economic diversity and complicated relations with their neighbours. These similarities provide grounds for closer relations. But if the EU wants to be treated as a bloc, it will have to do a better job in future of convincing its leading members to put European interests ahead of national ones.