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India and the European Union (EU) on Saturday announced the resumption of negotiations on three balanced and comprehensive trade-related agreements but were unable to reach common ground on New Delhi’s call for a waiver of patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines.
During a virtual summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders of the 27 EU member states, the two sides also unveiled an ambitious connectivity partnership to foster public and private investments in connectivity projects and take up joint projects in Africa, Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific. This is only the EU’s second such partnership after a similar arrangement with Japan.
The two sides didn’t specify any timeframe for negotiations on the agreements on trade, investment protection and geographical indications, saying a high-level mechanism led by India’s commerce minister and the EU trade commissioner would steer the negotiations and decide timelines.
The agreement on resumption of trade negotiations, which were started in 2007 and suspended in 2013 after major differences on issues such as market access and mobility of Indian professionals, was described by secretary (West) Vikas Swarup of the external affairs ministry as the “most important outcome” of the summit. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said all three pacts will be negotiated “in parallel at the same time so that we move forward rapidly”.
“Both sides have worked intensively over the last few months to arrive at a common understanding. The decisions are a result of the political desire on both sides to harness the full potential of our economic engagement and work towards an early post-Covid-19 recovery,” Swarup said.
At a news briefing in Porto after the summit, Von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel were lukewarm towards the proposal by India and South Africa for relaxing norms of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for vaccines. They expressed doubts as to whether such a move will help global access to vaccines and instead called on countries currently manufacturing doses to ramp up production and delivery.
Swarup told a separate news briefing in New Delhi that Modi had requested the EU’s support for a TRIPS waiver on vaccine-related patents to ensure equitable access for the entire world, especially after the US had backed the move recently.
“The EU’s support at WTO for this waiver will ensure that we can scale up the vaccine production for equitable and global access and save lives,” Swarup said. “We will be watching the evolving EU position on this particular issue.”
Both Michel and Von der Leyen expressed solidarity and support for India to counter a devastating second wave of Coronavirus infections, which has seen daily cases crossing the 400,000-mark in recent days, but made it clear the EU didn’t think a waiver of patents will produce significant and immediate results. The EU, they said, would back any effort that can lead to an increase in vaccine production and delivery in the short term.
“Nevertheless, in the short term, many of us think that this may not be the magic solution. That’s why we want to keep a close eye [on it] and keep discussing this issue,” Michel said, acknowledging the only way out of the Covid-19 crisis is to immunise the global population.
Von der Leyen noted the EU is open to discussions on waiver of patent protections but said: “These are important topics to discuss but we should be aware of the fact that these are topics for the long term. It’s not a topic for the short term or medium term, and therefore, we should not lose sight of the main urgencies now, which is ramping up vaccine production as quickly as possible and ensuring that they are fairly and evenly distributed.”
She instead suggested other vaccine-producing countries should follow the EU’s example of exporting 50% of its total production of 400 million doses to 90 countries. Other countries should also support the WHO-backed COVAX facility and invest in global vaccine manufacturing capacities.
In this regard, Von der Leyen said EU member states were investing in scaling up vaccine manufacturing capacities in Africa, and even thinking of deploying container-based vaccine laboratories that can train the workforce in African countries and transfer knowledge for providing safe and effective vaccines.
The EU leaders stressed they had assured the Indian prime minister of solidarity and support, and pointed to the oxygen-related gear, medicines and other equipment worth 100 million euros donated by 17 member states.
In his initial remarks at the summit, Modi explained the rationale for a stronger relationship with the EU and all its member states and described the strategic partnership between the two sides as a “force multiplier for the global good”.
On the economic front, the two sides agreed to have dedicated dialogues on WTO issues, regulatory cooperation, market access issues and supply chain resilience. The high-level trade and investment dialogue will monitor progress on these decisions.
The two sides also discussed how technology should be used for the welfare of the people while being rooted in democratic values. They also emphasised the need for secure networks and agreed to cooperate on global standards in new and emerging technologies such as 5G.