In recent months, Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign affairs chief, has found it in her line of responsibility to criticise the execution of Afzal Guru and Ajmal Kasab on account of the EU's opposition to the death penalty. She also welcomed the Kerala High Court's decision to allow the two Italian marines facing murder charges to return home for two weeks to celebrate Christmas. So her silence on Italy's refusal to send the two marines back to India for trial is conspicuous.
For an entity ever ready to comment on India's domestic matters, it is remarkable that the EU's foreign affairs chief has nothing to say when one of its constituents brazenly reneges on a commitment it made to India's apex court. (Also, curiously, while the EU issued a statement welcoming the Kerala High Court's pre-Christmas decision, it remained silent on the Supreme Court's even more generous order allowing the marines to go home for four weeks ostensibly for the purpose of casting their vote.)
Italian newspapers reported that the EU's reaction to Rome's sovereign default on its commitment to the Indian Supreme Court was a "no comment". On March 15, Gazzetta del Sud quoted a spokesperson for Ms Ashton as saying, "The EU is taking note of the disputes between India and Italy and continues to hope that a common solution can be reached through negotiation."
Brussels appears to want to wash its hands of the matter, but New Delhi must not allow the EU and its member states to distance themselves from Italy's mala fide act. If the spokesperson's statement is the EU's policy, then New Delhi must make it abundantly clear to Brussels, Berlin, Paris and London that India will see no difference between Italy's stand and the EU's.
Why drag the EU into what appears to be a bilateral matter between India and Italy? Well, because Italy is part of the EU, and under the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon, the Union arrogated to itself a foreign-policy role. If one of its members conducts itself in a manner that is grossly inconsistent with the norms of international behaviour, then it should concern the EU and its member states.
There is another reason. The matter has gone far beyond the criminal case against two Italian marines. The Italian government has converted the issue from a legal matter into a geopolitical one. So while the Indian government and the Supreme Court must continue to pursue the case in the domain of law, let us be clear that the matter is now firmly in the domain of power. New Delhi must move beyond its preference to play the game of dossiers and lawsuits and respond to the Italian transgression on the geopolitical and geoeconomic chessboard.
New Delhi has done well to downgrade diplomatic ties with Rome. This is the first step and serves to signal India's displeasure. This must be followed by action against the Italian ambassador - either his expulsion by the executive branch or his indictment by the judicial branch, if the latter is allowable under the Vienna Convention.
Given the scale and nature of the India-Italy bilateral relationship, there are few good options to punish the Italian government. Targeting economic ties would not be prudent because the balance of trade is in India's favour and is likely to remain so. While Indian citizens and civil society are free to protest by boycotting Italian goods, New Delhi must remain agnostic to actions of this kind.
Taking the matter up with the EU is a useful route. The Indian media generally missed reporting this, but the EU's ambassador to India, João Cravinho, was also called to the ministry of external affairs last week. The EU mission might have tried to project it as a "routine exercise" and the matter a "purely bilateral" one, but New Delhi did well to promptly invite Ambassador Cravinho for a chat.
Taken as a whole, the EU is one of India's biggest trading partners. India's share in the EU's trade is small, but New Delhi has indicated its readiness to negotiate a free trade agreement. This creates stakes for both sides to act in such a way that the mutually beneficial relationship is not damaged by the Italian government's actions, especially at a time when the euro zone is fragile and the Indian economy needs to rediscover its growth momentum.
Furthermore, the Indian government and the private sector have placed big-ticket orders from European firms in extremely competitive industries such as aerospace, defence and infrastructure. Even if the EU's foreign policy apparatus is oblivious to the political risk to these interests, the chancellories of France and Germany are unlikely to be.
Gauri Khandekar, a researcher at FRIDE, a European think tank, colourfully characterises the India-EU relationship as "a loveless arranged marriage", preoccupied with high-level summitry but little by way of vibrant quotidian ties. She warns that this "makes for deeply divergent interests and perceptions". It is incumbent upon Europe's leaders to ensure the Italian default does not complicate matters further.
For its part, New Delhi must spare no effort to ensure Europe is not let off the hook.