India- Portugal Strategic Axis Under Portuguese Presidency of European Union

Under the Portuguese presidency of the EU this year, Portugal has the potential to turn out as the window of Europe for India that used to rely on the British before Brexit. It was accentuated during the recent India- EU summit that was concluded virtually on 8th May. A cursory glance at the history of the relationship between the two democracies will go handy to analyse the present prospects of collaboration.

By Aarti Bansal

Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting the President of Portuguese Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi


The Sour Past

Britain happens to occupy a larger portion of our colonial memory as compared to the Portuguese in Goa. However, Portugal was the first European country to establish a maritime route to India through the south of Africa at the end of the 14th century. This discovery by Vasco da Gama, of a highly profitable Indian spice market, allowed Portugal to emerge as a dominant colonial trading power. The colonization of Goa and subsequently of Diu, Daman, and Dadra & Nagar Haveli began in the 1500s. Goa was the first territorial possession of Portugal in Asia and it became the Eastern capital of the Portuguese Empire, stretching from Malacca in the east to Mozambique in the west.

While the Britishers left India in 1947, Goa was still languishing under Portugal subordination making them the first to conquer and the last to leave. The Goan Liberation struggle intensified in the 1950s which met with brute force under Portugal’s dictator Antonio Salazar who refused to surrender the Portuguese exclaves. What followed was a period of heightened tensions amidst the intense legal and diplomatic battles they fought at the UN and other international fora. ‘Operation Vijay’ by Indian armed forces led to the decisive victory for India culminating in the liberation of Goa on 19 December 1961. This finally marked the end of 450 years-long exploitative colonial rule of Portugal in the subcontinent.

Following the collapse of Salazar’s dictatorship in March 1974, the political ties between the two democracies took off in the 1990s, ushering in an era of normalcy and mutual interest in forging close ties, with exchanges of Presidential visits in 1990, 1992, and 1998, followed by PM Vajpayee’s visit to Lisbon in the year 2000 for the first India-EU Summit and visit of the Portuguese PM Socrates to Delhi for the 8th India-EU Summit during the Portuguese Presidency of the EU. The concept of India-EU Summit was put forward for the first time by Portugal under the then PM Antonio Guterres, the current Secretary-General of the UN.

After a short stagnant phase, the relations picked up momentum in 2017 with reciprocal Prime Ministerial visits in the first half of 2017. The year 2017 brought many firsts to the table that bring back life to the standing ties between the two. This evolution of a golden period of bonhomie can be attributed to PM Antonio Costa who is of Indian origin. His visit to India in 2017 witnessed the convergence of the two-nation to strengthen and broaden the scope for collaboration as evident in the multiple MoUs signed including high-level meetings, naval exercises, the establishment of exchanges in training and research as well as holding talks on matters relating to international security and Defence Industries. It is during this visit, India and Portugal signed the first-ever MoU in defence cooperation. Later same year, PM Modi visited Portugal where the two sides agreed to work together in several areas which included space, avoidance of double taxation, nano-technology, biotechnology, and higher education. PM Costa was also presented with an OIC card during Modi’s visit. It was followed by the visit of the Portuguese PM Costa to Delhi on 19 December 2019 after his re-election. And now we recently hosted Portuguese President last year in Feb. It is astonishing to note that we had four high-level ‘Head of Govt.’ visits to and from Portugal since 2017.

Goa was like the albatross around the neck but it now ceases to be a sore spot in the relations between the two to a great extent

Moreover, as Inter-Parliamentary Union President, Duarte Pacheco visited India on his first trip abroad on 15 March 2021. He hailed India for its support for Portugal’s selection to the IPU and compensated by reasserting their permanent support to India’s bid for permanent UNSC membership. They have a vibrant Indian diaspora that has done significantly well in their economy. PM Antonia Costa of Goan origin has made it to the highest level in the government. He was the first man of Indian origin to govern any Western country. Gujarati trader, Kantilal Jamanadas is one of the biggest traders in Portuguese. Today, Portugal views India as a vibrant pluralistic democracy, a major world economy, and an ancient civilization with which it has close historical and cultural ties. Goa was like the albatross around the neck but it now ceases to be a sore spot in the relations between the two to a great extent. The parameters are now determined by much more pragmatism, and a ‘give and take’ basis.

The Defence Equation

So far as the defence ties between India and Portugal are concerned, they are fairly modest if not highly developed. But as the defence minister HE João Homes Cravinho asserted, ‘In the face of rapidly transforming technology and changing scenario in terms of requirements and capabilities, there is a huge potential between the two countries to exploit the emerging opportunities.’ To that end, the state visit of Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa in February 2020 is crucial. It was on the sidelines of this visit, the first Joint Working Group meeting on Defence was held. The visit entailed the signing of key collaboration agreements in defence sectors, involving aeronautical, space and shipbuilding technology, between Portuguese and Indian companies. To note a few-

  • CEiiA (Centre of Excellence for Automotive Industry Innovation) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, inked agreements for collaboration in training, exchange of visits, and cooperation in aviation systems. During his 2017 visit, PM Costa broached the possibility of India procuring Embraer KC 390 aircraft developed by CeiiA and PM Modi proposed a ‘win win’ Make in India collaboration. GOI currently has 8 Embraer aircraft. Out of these, except for the DRDO aircraft which are serviced in India itself, the remaining 5 aircraft used to come to OGMA in Portugal for R&M. To reduce the cost and time of flying those out to Portugal, OGMA and Embraer were successfully persuaded to authorize an Indian company Air Works Pvt. Ltd. to undertake R&M of all these aircraft in India.
  • As a follow-up to FICCI’s defence trade mission to Portugal in July 2019, UAVision Aeronautics and VEDA Défense Systems inked agreement focusing on technology transfer, production, and co-production of unmanned aerial systems with the acquaintance of Portuguese knowhow,
  • Estaleiros Navais de Peniche and the Goa Shipyard, to collaborate in shipbuilding through the transfer of technology (ToT) which incorporates polymers to be utilized in the hulls along with exploring trade opportunities in the African market.

To quote the Minister from his visit, ‘Both the nations are exploring the possibility of joint defense cooperation in the field of aviation including support and maintenance of Embraer aircraft and shipbuilding. We’ll assist Indian armed forces with state of art clothing that uses nano-technology. Their defense companies are keen to enter into JVs with their Indian counterparts.’

As MEA reported in a report, ‘Over 370 Portuguese defense companies are currently under their defense industry organization idD with niche technologies in sectors like AUVs, ammunition destruction through gas, shipbuilding, naval communication equipment, navigational systems, robotics and automation, aeronautics, military clothing, etc.’ This provides enormous scope for the two industries to collaborate. Despite being a NATO member, Portugal is not hesitant to share tech transfer and keen to partner with India’s ‘Strategic Partnership Initiative’ and ‘Make in India’. It was well evident in the participation of Portuguese defense delegation anchored by IdD in the DEFEXPO in Lucknow in February 2020.

India-EU Summit 2021- Towards Reviving the Latent Strategic Potential

As India is going through a devastating second wave, the key dealings on the recent summit were on joint tackling of the coronavirus pandemic. The EU countries didn’t fail to relinquish how India aided the union in battling a similar wave that wreaked havoc on the European nations last year. European Commission president Ursula Vonder Leyen remarked, “EU stands firmly besides India in this challenging time and assure PM Modi of our solidarity and support for whatever needed from oxygen cylinders to medicines and ventilators.” She also added that the member states should have a closer look at licensing and ramping up the production of vaccines.

Despite being a NATO member, Portugal is not hesitant to share tech transfer and keen to partner with India’s ‘Strategic Partnership Initiative’ and ‘Make in India’.

Another major takeaway from the summit was the resumption of the Free Trade Agreement between India and the EU after a period of 8 years of stalemate rendering a historic win for both sides. Assessing from the strategic point of view, the leaders descended upon the key areas that provide the impetus for more active collaboration between India and Portugal & consequently, the EU. As Portugal assumes the presidency of the union this year, it is packing much more than its actual size in terms of its influence in Brussels. It is more politically and economically stable. It is one of the pigs countries that bounced back after the 2008 financial crisis posting prospects of a positive economy and development that allowed opportunities for India to invest. 75% of their economy is based on the service sector that offers a lot of leverage for India to enter the market. India offers a market share and distribution structure to the smaller companies operating in Portugal that could prove beneficial for India in terms of leveraging compensation. Indo-Israel technological bonhomie is one of the most successful case in point.

75% of their economy is based on the service sector that offers a lot of leverage for India to enter the market.

So far, the potential of exploiting the bilateral relations is highly underutilised. There is a dire need to go beyond the concrete areas of defence, science and tech cooperation, towards more comprehensive people-to-people contacts, reviving cultural linkages and tackling the global issues such as climate change, terrorism, the rise of China in the indo pacific. We need to work out to bring qualitative and substantive results apart from what happens at superficial levels. We need to establish confidence building measures for a small country like Portugal to enhance our trade and economic relations and to become a more substantive part of their economy while at the same time, benefitting from the growth rate they’ve registered. There is complementarity of interest in several areas such as renewable, energy, environment, sustainable development, agricultural, pharmaceutical, etc. We need to explore what these smaller countries can offer us as an ideal model that we can adopt and apply in our country. For example, in case of Portugal, there lies an enormous potential for us to cooperate in terms of renewable solar energy which also suits well to the flagship initiatives of the current establishment.

Portuguese defence minister on his visit to India 2 years back stated that the Make in India paradigm has lot of opportunities, although at an immediate look on the face of it, it appears to be a protectionist approach, however what it actually offered is a clear set of rules for engagement for European companies. He further remarked that European Union till very recently has not been present in India’s strategic thinking but European companies are very much present that are at the forefront of India’s engagement with the International companies. So, EU through Portugal can harness this potential in a more systemic way.

India is well aware of the fact that in today’s fragmented world, the power of any aspiring global player depends on the number and quality of its bilateral and multilateral relationships. In this context, the EU may be a valuable ally for India to rely on. Thus, as Portuguese Foreign minister Augusto Santos Silva asserted at Raisina Dialogue 2021, one aspect of globalization is that we need to diversify our relations. The pragmatic and strategic pursuit of cordial relations by shedding historical baggage in this case is the need of the hour.


–The writer is a Research Intern, Strategic Studies Programme at ORF. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda