SPECIAL ADDRESS

 

by Ms. NEENA GILL

 

Member of the European parliament [MEP]

 

 to the GOPIO Conference on

NRI/PIO Business Networking for Trade and Investment and Contribution of Indian Diaspora in Europe

  4 October 2004, Brussels (Belgium)

 

First of all I would like to express my sincere thanks for the invitation to speak to you today. I am very pleased that GOPIO have arranged this conference to discuss the contribution of Indian Diaspora throughout Europe. With over 20 million Indians living outside India, myself included, it is important that this truly global community is able to meet and discuss the issues that concern us. I want to congratulate GOPIO as an international body for all the work it has done for Indian communities and its vision for our future.

I would like to express particular thanks to Sunil Prasad, President of GOPIO Belgium for his hard work in organising today's conference and I know that he had done a lot to raise the profile of the Indian community here in Belgium. And of course I am very much delighted to have an opportunity to meet Mr Inder Singh, the GOPIO International President and the Minister Mr Tytler from India. I would like to offer them my own welcome to Brussels. I would like to offer a greeting to His Excellency Mr R. M. Abhyankar the new Indian Ambassador to the EU, I understand that it was only last Thursday when he met the king of Belgium to become officially inaugurated as the Ambassador to the EU. I am looking forward to working closely with you during your time in Brussels.

I feel particularly privileged to be speaking to you today as a recently re-elected Member of the European Parliament, this means that I have the opportunity to work for a further 5 years on the issues that concern me most. As part of my work I have been elected as the President of the European Parliament's Delegation for South Asia and SAARC. I am hopeful that this delegation, which represents the seven countries of South Asia and the entire European Union, will be an active forum for discussion and co-operation.

Over the 5 years of the last Parliament I tried to work as a catalyst to getting the European Institutions to recognise the importance of ethnic minorities in Europe. In 2002 I encouraged the Commission to have its first ever Asian Entrepreneurs Conference - which boosted the Asian network of professionals across Europe. Furthermore, since the momentous Indian elections in May I have campaigned within the European Parliament for Mr Borrell the Parliament's President to invite the Indian Prime Minister, Mr Manmohan Singh and the Indian President Mr Abdul Kalam to address our European house.

I have to say that as the only Indian born female Member of the European Parliament, I feel very at home here in Brussels. I have come from the world's largest democracy that benefits from a mix of languages, religions and cultures to work in the democratic heart of a diverse union of twenty-five different member states.

I think it is particularly fitting and the timing of this conference couldn't have been better, at a stage when the relationship between the EU and India is at an important crossroads. I am thrilled that we are witnessing a period of change when these two enormous democracies will be forging a shared future.

You are all probably aware that earlier this year the Commission published a paper outlining the future of EU-India relations, in which a strategic partnership will develop. This communication outlined a new role for India in the EU, a strategic partnership that sets a new framework for strengthened relations. This partnership is evolving further than what is termed as "a 3rd generation agreement" because it goes beyond pure trade and economic goals, towards political objectives such as promoting peace, stability, democracy, human rights, the rule of law and good governance.

Initial reactions to the Commission proposals have been extremely positive. The Council of Ministers and European Parliament as well as the Indian Government fully back the initiative to work together to combat terrorism, and co-operate in fields of science and research, energy and new medicines. Both sides of the partnership welcome the strategy to open dialogue on foreign affairs, defence, industry, transport and tourism, as well as introducing academic and cultural exchange programmes.

As President of the EU-South Asia and SAARC Delegation I am keen to see if the Commission communication can create a tangible difference on the ground. It would be wonderful if India and the EU attained a level of co-operation that encouraged real people to engage across the globe to improve working practices and quality of life. I hope that in the future, farmers in the Punjab and Gujarat, for example, can exchange ideas of new types of production and marketing with farmers in Spain and Denmark.

In 10 days time there will be a landmark EU-India Summit in The Hague where EU leaders such as Chris Pattern and key Indian ministers will meet. They will be discussing how to implement this new strategic partnership so we can really expect this special relationship to develop in leaps and bounds over the coming years.

This partnership is good news for India and the European Union, but it is also wonderful news for Indians in Europe. This new basis for enhanced co-operation and dialogue paves the way for Indians across the European Union to engage in all aspects of society.

GOPIO and other organisations such as the EU-India Centre (of which I am a board member) have a vital role to support the communities that will benefit from this new EU-India multilateral agreement.

(If I can just digress here for a moment to tell you a bit about the EU-India Centre and just give Michel Sabatier's apologies who has been at the forefront of establishing the EU-India Centre in La Rochelle, France, a partner organisation of GOPIO. The EU-India Center was the first ever center for a European-focused network of Professional Indians. I know that Michel was very much looking to participating here today, he has been working hard on these issues for years. I would personally like to offer my sincere condolences to Michel who is unable to be with us today. Due to a family bereavement, he is travelling back to India, our thoughts go to him at this difficult time. Mr P.K. Singh will be telling you more about the EU-India Centre in a later presentation.)

If Indian communities are to get the most out of this partnership they will need to be active participants in the countries they reside and to be engaged in all sorts of civic issues. If EU-India relations at the top levels have moved beyond simple economics to working together politically it is also the opportunity for Indians in Europe to do the same. This is where excellent organisations, such as GOPIO are able to provide another level of co-operation.

My experience in the UK is that most Indians either focus on professions: we have had some notable successes in every field from judges to top surgeons or academics; or business: for example on Saturday I was in Birmingham in my West Midlands constituency, at an Asian Business conference. The main speaker was Dinesh Dhamija, an Indian entrepreneur. Mr Dhamija spoke of his humble beginnings as the manager of a small travel agency in a London Tube Station kiosk he has now become the CEO of the largest internet Travel company, e-bookers. His message was simple and clear: in order succeed you have to engage in society, you must react to the needs of society and change with the times.

I am optimistic that with a new strategy for EU-India relations it is time for all of us to change and engage with society.

I hope that GOPIO and the EU-India Centre will play a pivotal role in addressing one of my concerns that I have hinted at earlier in the speech, that is that there are too few prominent Indians in the world of politics outside India. Of course there are notable examples in the UK, Australia, the United States and Canada but these people are exceptions rather than the rule. Unfortunately in continental Europe the representation of Indians in politics is even rarer. At such an exciting time we need to encourage more Indians, and especially our young people to be engaged in political activity wherever they live.

This is symbolically important here in Belgium, where we are at the heart of Europe. Unfortunately in Belgium there is also the problem of the far-right group, Vlaams Blok. What we must do to combat xenophobia is become politically active ourselves. It is only through civic engagement in every country where Indians reside that we able to improve our perception, otherwise we leave a vacuum in which extremists can thrive and exploit the ignorant. This is one reason why I am keen to see that projects such as the new EU-India Strategic Partnership can form a strong foundation for peace and prosperity between, and within, India and Europe.

I want to express my best wishes that you have a thought-provoking day of presentations and wish GOPIO every success for a great conference and an interesting and constructive future in Europe.