After Brexit: India's solidarity with Britain and Europe

Double-decker buses came to India in 1937. They show the influence of Britain.
Teaser Image Caption
Double-decker bus in the city of Mumbai

After the UK vote for leaving the European Union, India, with historically close ties to Britain has to reassess its relations with both sides. A weakening of either the EU or the UK is against India's interests, which could lead to a revivification of the Commonwealth and to new multilateral free trade areas.

As India works out the long term implications of the British vote to leave the European Union for economic globalisation, regional institutions and international security, Delhi must extend strong solidarity with Britain and Europe, both of whom are likely to be weakened in the near term.

The idea of an 'ever closer union' between the European states has been an unchanging element of the Eurasian landscape for long. If the fracturing of Europe makes India's security environment a lot more uncertain than it was before the Brexit vote, strengthening strategic partnerships with Britain and Europe must be central to any new Indian effort to shape the Eurasian balance of power as well securing the Indo-Pacific.

The impending economic divorce between London and Brussels will be long, painful and involve much recrimination. For India, though, Britain and Europe are among its most important partners. Finding ways to rejuvenate the economic and political ties to both should now be at the top of India's diplomatic agenda.

Russia and China could capitalize on emerging fractures

Many British leaders demanding separation from Europe had argued that the loss from the severance of the European market can easily made up by Britain's independent economic engagement with the rest of the world, including United States, China and India.

Although President Barack Obama had publicly cautioned Britain against leaving the European Union, there is considerable support for the decision especially from sections of the Republicans, including the presidential nominee, the party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump who had hailed the vote as 'fantastic'.

Irrespective of who wins the election in November, Washington would want to ensure that the damage from Brexit is limited in the short run and strengthen ties with both London and Brussels so that the fractures in the Western world do not end up delivering big benefits to Russia and China.

Russia, which in recent years has probed the cleavages between America and Europe as well as those in EU, is well poised at least for some political gains in the short run.

Beijing which has made major inroads into Britain over the last few years and was celebrating the prospects for a 'golden decade' in the bilateral relationship is well poised to become even a stronger partner to London in the coming years. Continental Europe, which has been a major political and economic focus of Chinese diplomacy in recent years, is quite central to Beijing’s OBOR (one belt, one road) strategy to integrate the Eurasian land mass and the Indo-Pacific.

Free trade agreement between India and the UK

As London recrafts its international orientation, a rising India, with its 2.4 trillion dollar economy and an expanding political footprint around the world can be a valuable partner. The same applies to Brussels. Although Delhi and Brussels have had a notional strategic partnership, after Brexit the case of rejuvenating is an important imperative for both.

Delhi, which has much good will among the Brexiteers must make its move sooner than later. On the economic front, India must signal its readiness to negotiate a quick free trade agreement with Britain. Although India can in no way substitute for Europe or match China's resources, it can offer a measure of economic comfort at this difficult juncture.

India must match economic reassurance with a political exploration of the possibilities for strengthening the Commonwealth as a political institution. While independent India has sought membership of every global club since its independence, it has largely looked down on the Commonwealth that it had inherited from the Raj.

Revivification of the Commonwealth

As a club of globally dispersed states from the South Pacific to the Caribbean and the Southern Africa to the Middle East and South East Asia, the Commonwealth was long ripe for Indian leadership.

Reviving the Commonwealth at this moment might be lot more demanding that it would have been a few years ago; but it is never too late. The first step is to initiate a high level consultation among key members of the Commonwealth including Britain, Canada, Australia and India.

If nostalgia for the Commonwealth, hopes for restoring the special relationship with the US and expanding the financial and commercial engagement with China give something to fall back upon, Europe after Brexit finds itself in a difficult corner.

The EU at its weakest moment

The growing populist pressures, hostility towards the European bureaucracy in Brussels, anger against the power of international terrorist groups to target cites with impunity, and the growing resistance to movement of refugees from the South has put great strain on European political leadership. Making matters worse is the European inability to either confront an increasingly assertive Russia or the finding a much needed political accommodation.

Long the model for regionalism and the possibilities for transcending the traditional notions of territorial sovereignty, the European project has never looked as shaky as it does today.

To be sure, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the military alliance between America and Europe, could endure even amidst the weakening of the EU. Despite much talk the EU has never looked capable of replacing the NATO.

But now NATO itself looks vulnerable, amidst the growing American skepticism about its utility. Trump has been at the forefront of demanding a new framework for security burden sharing between America and Europe.

A weakening of both the EU and Britain is against Indias’ interest

As Germany and France struggle to deal with the political shock waves from the British vote and fend off potential copy cats elsewhere in Europe, Delhi must reach out to Berlin and Paris, who have been staunch supporters of India's political aspirations in recent years. An early conclusion of a free trade agreement with Europe would be a strong vote of confidence from India.

Delhi must also end its reluctance to engage NATO on security affairs and explore possibilities for collaboration with new European defence structures. A new multilateral partnership with NATO must be seen as a strong reinforcement of India’s growing bilateral security ties with the US, France, Britain and Germany.  

India has most to lose, from both the geopolitical and geoeconomic perspective, of any weakening of Britain and European Union that could alter the balance of power in Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific to the detriment of India’s interests. Limiting that possibility will remain a significant strategic priority for Delhi in the coming years.

This is a revised version of an article first published on

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