The European Union said Saturday that it would resume long-paused trade talks with India and it also announced a massive coronavirus vaccine deal with Pfizer-BioNTech as it wrapped up a wide-ranging summit in Portugal.
EU-India trade talks have been frozen since 2013 over a raft of differences. Helping to thaw them out, some observers say, are Europe’s growing concerns about the influence and trading might of another Asian nation — China.
European Union chief Charles Michel called the agreement an important new chapter in EU-India ties, saying talks would cover issues like trade, investment protection and so-called geographical indications, aimed to protect products like champagne.
“We are the world’s two largest democracies," Michel said. "We are natural partners in many areas."
Michel’s remarks followed virtual talks between the European leaders meeting in Portugal and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, said 17 member states had also provided more than $120 million in aid to India to fight its surging coronavirus cases.
For the Europeans, the Portugal summit was their first face-to-face meeting in months, with COVID-19 a key topic. They gave a mixed response to U.S. President Joe Biden’s proposal to waive patent rights on COVID-19 vaccines, which has been welcomed by developing countries like India.
While EU leaders said they wanted the U.S. to present a concrete plan, von der Leyen said the bloc was willing to discuss the idea.
"But again, this is something that will not bring, within the next months or perhaps the next year, any vaccines," she said. "But we need vaccines now.”
More immediately, von der Leyen said major vaccine producers like the U.S. should share their vaccines with other countries. The EU says it’s exported about half the vaccines it’s produced.
She noted the newly announced deal for Pfizer-BioNTech to supply the bloc with 1.8 billion doses would not only meet the needs of its people but possibly would allow it to export some to developing countries.
For the first time in several years, leaders also met to discuss Europe’s social challenges. Klervi Kerneis of the Paris-based research group Jacques Delors Institute said the coronavirus had put some issues in sharp focus.
"Before the pandemic, the stars were kind of aligned in the EU, growth had been on the rise since 2014, poverty was declining since 2012, as well as unemployment," Kerneis said. "And now all of these indicators had turned red.”
Member states agreed to tackle poverty and inequality, but the agreement was nonbinding and critics said it lacked ambition. EU countries are also split on how much control Brussels should have over those issues.