Sustainable connectivity: More than economic cooperation

Connectivity projects are the latest geopolitical instruments used to advance international affairs and diplomacy. In today’s world, the term ‘connectivity’ tends to mean the strategic and political aspects of a partnership rather than a purely economic focus. This shift in priorities is attributed to the political, financial and environmental visibility of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Europe and Asia.

The European Union published its strategy document titled “Connecting Europe and Asia: Building blocks for an EU strategy” in 2018 which, for the first time, highlighted the EU’s position as a global player in connectivity with its aim of increasing engagement with Asia through building networks and strategic partnerships.

Similarly, India has also begun to prioritise connectivity as an instrument to achieve sustainable development. As a response to the rise of China, India is looking, through the Sambandh, Brookings India’s Regional Connectivity Initiative, at a strategy for regional connectivity under its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. In this regard, India and the EU have converged in their understanding of connectivity.

The 14th India-EU Summit, held in 2017, provided a strong political mandate for prioritising connectivity, especially via the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The summit’s declaration also expressed both entities’ commitment to enhancing cooperation for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for SDGs.

The EU-India Connectivity Partnership (2021) aims at deepening people-to-people connectivity through the Erasmus+ programme, Horizon Europe and through linkages with the Global Initiative of Academic Networks and the Scheme for Promotion of Academic and Research Collaboration.

EU-Asia Connectivity

The ‘Connecting Europe and Asia’ strategy is a collection of policies designed to improve Europe’s economic connectivity to the emerging economies of Central, Southeast and East Asia. For India and the EU, connectivity has emerged as the highest priority and applies to both soft and hard infrastructure.

Soft infrastructure refers to the more reserved centres of the country that disseminate connectivity, such as educational centres. Hard infrastructure, on the other hand, is about the immediate, noticeable landscape of a country such as transport routes via road, rail and air. It also applies to energy, mobility, digital exchanges and climate issues.

The growing importance of connectivity emphasises a newer potential in India-EU collaboration, which goes beyond economic cooperation.

Japan’s successful implementation of connectivity ventures makes it important for India to actively focus on regional integration and align with the EU’s connectivity initiatives.

It is worth noting that the emphasis on connectivity in India coincides with an interest in EU-Asia connectivity generally.

However, the role of the EU in Asian connectivity is causing increasing tensions from the viewpoint of India, given that India and the EU have different opinions about China. Importantly, it is proposed that the EU strategy should support sustainability and a systematic and rule-based approach towards connectivity.

Education, research and innovation

Formal cooperation between India and the EU began with the signing of the Scientific and Technology Agreement in 2001 between India and the European Community, which was renewed for the period 2020-25. Collaborations include joint projects, research funding and exchanges for scholars and innovators. This cooperation will also foster innovation by start-ups, incubators and accelerators, through the creation of joint platforms, both offline and virtual, as well as coaching, training and staff exchanges.

The EU-India Joint Steering Committee of Science and Technology offers a forum for shaping collaboration and setting goals. Both entities agreed to collaborate under the renewed cooperation agreement addressing the current challenges of sustainability.

They are also planning to improve innovation and promote networking among start-ups, thus providing affordable and inclusive technology. Individual member states are also affiliated with research programmes and funding, for example, the Indo-French Centre for the Promotion of Advanced Research and the Indo-German Science and Technology Centre.

With the success of Erasmus Mundus, a scholarship programme of the European Union, the EU has extended and introduced the Erasmus+ programmes to India. Several EU programmes have come together in education as a result of years of partnership, projects, educational summits and meetings between Indian and European higher education institutions.

Mutual benefits lead to the exchange of information, student mobility and intra-mobility of any staff involved. Under its flagship Erasmus+ programme and its seven-year cycle covering 2021-27, the EU is looking forward to more collaboration with India in the educational sector to increase its visibility and popularity among Indian students. Interestingly, last year, 153 Indian students were awarded the prestigious Erasmus Mundus scholarships. With this, India ranked first in the number of scholarship recipients for the second consecutive year among 167 countries.

For the ease of Indians participating in Horizon Europe 2021-27, the EU has also negotiated with Indian higher education institutions and the government of India, especially the Department of Science and Technology, Ministry of Earth Sciences and the Department of Biotechnology, for a ‘co-funding mechanism’ and mobility of students.

The 14th India-EU Summit called for “intensified two-way mobility of researchers” as part of this stronger cooperation. They have also signed an implementing arrangement for connectivity purposes. A recent collaboration is the EU-India Think Tanks Twinning Initiative focused on identifying and working together to provide policy guidance on governance, security, education and international affairs.

Partnership in a changing global context

The education sector has promoted India-EU ties from the beginning, accelerating innovation and now moving into sustainable and inclusive development. The convergence of interests in the field of education means innovation will play a key role in unlocking the potential of development and strategic partnerships based on the SDGs.

There is huge scope for the strengthening of relations between India and the EU in terms of an array of areas of convergence like sustainable development, education and clean energy. To date, the EU’s relationship with India has been related to economic and investment cooperation while a longer-term strategic relationship has remained inactive.

However, in the connectivity strategy, the EU has recognised India as a partner it can develop further relations with. Through improving connectivity via the SDGs as well as in other areas, the EU and India can move along a shared path that can enhance both regions’ future prospects, their relations and their sustainable growth.

Sushmita Roy is a PhD student at Manipal Centre for European Studies at Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India. Alyssa Martins is a research scholar at Manipal Centre for European Studies at Manipal Academy of Higher Education.

The focus of this story is SDG 17, also known as Partnerships for the Goals, which seeks to strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development. You can learn more about the 17 SDGs and the 169 targets for implementing them here.