Norway, Switzerland eye trade deal with India before 2024 polls

As Trade Ministers from Switzerland and Norway concluded their visit to Delhi this week, they remain optimistic about reaching an agreement on a trade pact with four European countries that make up the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) outside the European Union (EU): Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. Negotiations for a trade deal began 15 years ago, and the attempt is to sign an agreement before the General Elections due in India in May 2024.

India Today TV spoke with Norwegian Trade Minister Jan Christian Vestre and Swiss State Secretary for Economic Affairs Helene Budliger Artieda in an exclusive interview.

Q. COP adopted the ‘Global Stocktake’ document even with small island States opposed to key areas that leave them vulnerable. Is the world divided on climate change?

Jan Christian Vestre, Norwegian Trade Minister: First of all, I’m very glad leaders have agreed to step up the game, and this platform is more ambitious compared to whatever we have had in recent years. So, at least that’s a good starting point. According to Norway, it should have been even more ambitious in terms of speeding up the green transition and accelerating the transition into renewable energy.

And that’s also why it’s so important that we work together on this issue among friends and allies and partners like the EFTA countries and India to see how we can partner up and team up to develop new technologies, do R&D together, make sure that we make investments together and utilise all the tremendous potential we find in renewables. What makes me optimistic about this is that now the technology is getting better. We can also scale off the use of new technology to the levels we have never seen before in the history of mankind. The only problem is, and this is one major problem, is that we started this transition way too late. So, basically, we have just a few years left now to reduce global emissions. And that’s why it’s so important and huge, very important economies like the Indian economy are contributing, and that we work together as partners to find the right solutions.

Q. What are the conversations with India into renewable transition? Has there been any forward movement?

Helene Budliger Artieda, Swiss State Secretary for Economic Affairs: Absolutely, we see a forward movement. First of all, I think what the Paris Agreement did, it really united us in language and in purpose. And I listened to what Prime Minister Modi says or we’ve just spent time with Minister (Piyush) Goyal, and it resonates with the language they use and the objectives they formulate. And that’s what Minister Mesto is referring to. I think we can really assist each other. We have some of the cutting edge technology. And of course, India has massive opportunities for our private sector. One of the key areas is indeed a green infrastructure, energy transition, all these technologies that will be needed not only in India, but also back home. I definitely get a sense that we’re aligned and that there is forward movement. I can completely relate to the Pacific Islands because for them, it’s an existential threat. You might be surprised that in Switzerland, we sort of relate maybe in a rather obvious way because we have the glaciers. We see mountain huts which used to be at the border of the glacier. And now, a few years later, it really feels threatening how much glaciers have actually reduced. And you see all of a sudden the hut is a kilometer, two kilometers away from the glacier. So I can totally relate to the sense of threat that the Pacific Islands must experience.

Q. The EFTA trade talks with India have been on for the past 15 years. Where are the problems? What are the niggling areas?

Jan Christian Vestre, Norwegian Trade Minister: We are still negotiating. But I think it’s fair to say that we are getting closer and that we have solved many important issues. There are some remaining topics. But I think both on the Indian side and on our side we stay optimistic as always. And there is tremendous opportunities in this potential agreement for both India in terms of job creation, value creation for investments, but of course also to our countries in terms of having access to an enormous market. That being said, since we started talking about the climate issue and the transition, we actually spent quite a lot of time on those topics because to us, this is not only about the potential free trade agreement, it’s more about the strategic partnership, what can we bring to the table. In terms of also supporting India’s very ambitious plan of having 50% of electricity from renewable sources by 2030, I mean that’s six years from now. That’s a huge transformation. So how can we, with our experience more than 150 years on hydropower, on hydrogen, offshore floating wind, carbon capture and storage, solar panels and so on, also help accelerate this transition and transforming the economy.

Helene Budliger Artieda, Swiss State Secretary for Economic Affairs: It’s been 16 years; that means, of course, that it has not been a linear process. I think in previous time frames, there was progress and then there were some stumbling blocks, and then things were left aside because all of us are constantly negotiating with different countries. I think now currently we’re lucky that I get the sense that we have a group of people leading the process among the five countries, which are ambitious, and which sort of, I think we shared that sentiment 15 years. Come on, either now we can do it, or really it’s unsolvable. So I think that’s really the positive energy and the fact that we all decided to travel many times to India. We are really dedicated to the process. Of course, one of the things that we had to overcome is if you typically, in let’s say, old-time free trade agreements, you would look at market size. And of course, India, with 1.4 billion exploding exports and excellent growth, and us, we are not a small market. I have to emphasise that. We are together ranked 15 when it comes to GDP. But in population, we are, of course, with 15 million, a really different population, also different maturity. So to sort of match that, because the five of us, as I said, we’re not only ambitious, we also said this needs to be a balanced deal. So that, I think, was maybe one of the things that we struggled early on. But we have now managed to overcome that discussion.

Q. So then is there a timeline?

Jan Christian Vestre, Norwegian Trade Minister: Let’s see. Let’s find out. But we are progressing. And we have, you know, put our best experts on this journey on the Indian side, the minister himself, Goyal, is very personally engaged in those topics. He is extremely knowledgeable. He has passion. He’s representing India in a great way. We are here. We brought our colleagues. As well. So I think, in respect of the negotiations, it’s a bit too early to say it, but it’s a good progress. And that makes us happy, of course.

Helene Budliger Artieda, Swiss State Secretary for Economic Affairs: I have, in my team, people wo have been throughout these 15 years engaged in this process. And have come, I don’t know, how many times to India. So I’m still a junior. And they have told me we’ve never been as close as we are now. So, you sense a certain level of optimism from our side.

Q. What are the benefits that these four countries can get out of India?

Jan Christian Vestre, Norwegian Trade Minister: India is a huge market. So, access to a lot of skilled workers, people. Great business opportunities. I think in terms of exports, yes. But even more important, in terms of investments, great potential. But also kind of equal-minded countries. We do share the same hopes and the same dreams. We really admire the Vision 2047 platform India has stated out and again, to us, this doesn’t only represent business opportunities. It’s more about what we as great important countries, one very big, a few others smaller, but also representing a lot of knowledge of R&D innovation, high-skilled workers, cutting edge technologies, and so on can accomplish and achieve together. I think that’s the main goal of this.

Helene Budliger Artieda, Swiss State Secretary for Economic Affairs: Allow me to add, Swiss companies actually are, geographically speaking, highly diversified. We are really active in all continents and in all geographical contexts but geopolitics are changing and I think what we’re also looking for is the fact that India is a democracy. It is now starting to go through an election process again and we understand that that will be a robust fair and transparent process. I think that really speaks to Swiss companies. Whenever I meet Swiss businesses, they really look at their value chain and they look at where you know they can manufacture and where there are certain safeties. India is going currently very strong so that’s maybe also what pushed us. We really feel great ambition and great hunger by Swiss companies to strengthen their presence in India.
Jan Christian Vestre, Norwegian Trade Minister: We should say also that we have a strong foundation already. EFTA countries already contributes to around 2,00,000 jobs here in India. Norway alone accounts for 25 billion USD for investments in India. So, there’s a lot of things to work on here and we believe that if we will make this happen and if we can enter into a stronger economic partnership that will foster more collaboration, it will boost investments and we will see an accelerated shift towards green and digital solutions.

Q. Since you mentioned elections and democracy, would you hope and wish that a trade deal be concluded before the next general elections in India?

Helene Budliger Artieda, Swiss State Secretary for Economic Affairs: This is really also up to our partner. When you enter into a negotiation, you are not sitting alone at the table. So, I think we really have to be respectful of availabilities on all sides and actually it fills us with joy that India is very ambitious. We, of course, know that they’re currently negotiating with a number of countries and economic blocks. So, I think it’s also in the end the resource question. For us, it will soon be Christmas, so if I could put in a Christmas wish it would be definitely that I would be more than happy to conclude before elections, but it’s too early to say.

Q You just talked about access…in that, unrestricted movement of people is important for India. Do you see more liberalised travel and visa requirements as part of the deal?

Jan Christian Vestre, Norwegian Trade Minister: One of the things we are also discussing, of course, is a free trade agreement and a potential economic partnership will consist of a lot of important topics for all countries. I mean trading earth, trading services and sustainability. How do we access the labor force and so on but I think it’s a bit too early to go into those details again because we are still at the table negotiating.

Helene Budliger Artieda, Swiss State Secretary for Economic Affairs: Switzerland is not a member of the European Union but we’re associated member of Schengen. So we could not agree on anything unilaterally in a free trade agreement but business visas facilitation of certain services is definitely part of the package.

Q. How does New Delhi’s mantra of ‘Make in India’ fit into the trade deal?

Jan Christian Vestre, Norwegian Trade Minister: We are about 15 million, India has 1.4 billion population and it is still growing. We don’t have space in our countries, we don’t have enough people to be able to go really big in India. So based on experience from other FTAs this is what will happen. When we create an ecosystem for cooperation, for investments, for trading the goods and services, and so on, that will inspire and motivate and mobilise private companies to go into India to start operating here and when they find the market attractive, which they will, when they find the market profitable, which they will, when they fall in love with the country just like Helena and I already did and they will all fall in love with India because it is a beautiful country with great people, then they will also start to build companies here, start manufacturing here to be able to have not only access to a huge market but also be in close distance near the big market. We believe that if we open the doors, that will lead to potentially huge investments. Also creating jobs here, we would love to contribute to that and again that’s why this is more about a partnership than a traditional FTA partnership as we have seen them before.

Helene Budliger Artieda, Swiss State Secretary for Economic Affairs: The times where sort of we look at trade and then we look completely separate at investment are long gone. Either a company, a potential investor, discovers the country through a trade relationship and then feels more comfortable and starts looking at investment or maybe they go right away with an investment and out of that, this will feed into a trade balance. That’s why I’m saying we’re very happy to see that India is starting to negotiate broad free trade agreements because that will also favour Swiss companies wanting to come to India because you have an amazing home market, you’re ideally located in Asia as well. There are big countries surrounding you in the immediate neighbourhood and going further. You have everything that it takes to become that global hub on manufacturing and services. And as I said, Swiss companies, and I’m sure it’s the same for all EFTA companies, they are currently really looking, revisiting and maybe doubling up structures to make sure that they’re resilient, that they’re ready for, hopefully not, but we don’t know, the next geopolitical shock. And so you have everything going a great home market, but also now with your efforts in free trade to create really interesting global value chains.

Published On:

Dec 14, 2023

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