PORTO, (Portugal): The EU and India agreed Saturday to relaunch long-stalled trade talks in a major push to boost ties at a video summit held under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic battering the south Asian giant.
"The EU and India are opening a new important chapter in our relationship. We are the world's two largest democracies. We are natural partners," European Council chief Charles Michel said.
The devastating wave of infections sweeping India impacted the meeting by forcing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to scrap plans to fly to Portugal to see his European counterparts. But the 27-nation bloc and the world's largest democracy remain determined to capitalise on growing momentum for closer relations fuelled by shared concerns over the rising might of China.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen hailed the decision to restart trade talks after an eight-year break as a "landmark moment".
EU countries have sent medical equipment and drugs worth an estimated 100 million euros ($120 million) to India as part of international efforts to help it fight against the flood of Covid-19 cases.
Von der Leyen insisted that the bloc "stands firmly at the side of India in this most challenging time" and pledged that "further assistance will follow". A top official at India's External Affairs Ministry said Modi had pushed the EU to support an Indian and South African proposal to suspend Covid-19 vaccine patents after US President Joe Biden threw his weight behind the plan.
EU leaders have expressed scepticism about the initiative, insisting the first move is for countries to open up to exporting doses. "We will be watching the evolving EU position on this particular issue," senior Indian official Vikas Swarup said. The two vaccine-producing powerhouses did agree to try to work together to make sure global supplies are maintained and the world is better prepared for future pandemics.
"We agreed that defeating the Covid-19 pandemic through global cooperation and solidarity remains our priority and underlined our commitment to work together to ensure a better, safer, sustainable and inclusive recovery," a joint statement said.
While the pandemic cast a dark cloud over the summit, the key announcement was the restarting of talks for a wide-ranging free trade deal that have been suspended since 2013. The two sides agreed to simultaneously launch negotiations on separate deals to protect investments and regionally specific products.