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Indian PM to push for stronger trade ties with EU

Latest update : 2008-09-29

Indian PM Manmohan Singh arrives in the French city of Marseilles on Monday for an annual EU-India summit. A nuclear deal between France and India is also expected to be completed during Singh's visit.

Global warming, terrorism and the world financial crisis are set to dominate the annual summit Monday between the European Union and India in the French city of Marseille.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will push his credentials as leader of the world's largest democracy and one of its fastest growing economies in talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

"India and Europe are bound by common values of democracy and pluralism," Singh said last week as he left for a visit to the United States prior to the summit.

The EU is India's largest commercial partner -- ahead of China -- with annual bilateral trade totalling around 60 billion euros (88 billion dollars).

India, however, ranks only ninth behind South Korea in the EU's list of major trading partners -- a position French European Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet described this week as "abnormal."

France holds the current EU presidency.

India and the EU have had a strategic partnership agreement since 2004 and   talks on a free trade accord began last year, but progress has been slow.

Europe wants to boost ties with the emerging Asian giant, which is seen as a relative haven of stability in an often volatile region which includes Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The European parliament called Wednesday for the free trade deal to be negotiated by the end of the year, though some lawmakers also voiced concerns over human rights abuses in India, in particular against Christians.

"It is high time for the government in New Delhi to hear some bitter words about the violation of freedom of religion in that country," said Polish MP Konrad Szymanski.

Hindu-Christian violence occurs periodically in India, where 2.3 percent of the country's population of more than 1.1 billion are Christians.

Hardline Hindus accuse missionaries of bribing poor tribal and low-caste Hindus to convert to Christianity by offering free education and health care.

The EU lawmakers also called on Delhi to scrap the death penalty and for more EU-India intelligence cooperation in order to better tackle terrorism.

European and Indian diplomats both agree that finalising a free trade accord by the end of the year is unlikely, especially with Indian general elections due before May 2009.

Climate change will be a subject of some friction in Marseille, with Brussels long accusing New Delhi of failing to make stringent efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

India's response has been to underline its status as a developing country that is under no obligation to slow its modernisation.

There is more common ground when it comes to counter-terrorism cooperation, which Singh said he wanted to "strengthen" during the summit.

Since the beginning of the year, a series of bomb blasts have rocked Indian  cities, including New Delhi, killing more than 100 people. The most recent blast, in a crowded market in the Indian capital on Saturday, left two dead and more than 20 injured.

The global financial crisis is also expected to figure in the Marseille talks, although India has so far been relatively unscathed by the meltdown in the US banking system.

And Singh is also likely to push again for a permanent Indian seat on an enlarged UN Security Council --  a move that is supported by France but enjoys no EU consensus.

Date created : 2008-09-28