France, India to boost nuke cooperation

By Rory Mulholland, AFP

MARSEILLE, France — Indian and French leaders vowed Monday to boost nuclear energy cooperation at an annual summit on EU-India ties dominated by trade, global warming and the world financial crisis.

“France, which has great trust in India and its prime minister, has worked hard so that India can have access to civilian nuclear energy,” said French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.

He made the comment at a press conference with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who arrived in France from the US, where he took India a major step closer to rejoining global nuclear commerce after 30 years in the cold.

Singh was to meet Tuesday in Paris with French political leaders and nuclear energy executives and was expected to sign a major nuclear trade pact.

If the deal goes through, French nuclear giant Areva said Monday it hoped to negotiate the delivery to India of two third-generation European Pressurized Reactors (EPRs), as well as nuclear fuel.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Saturday passed a major atomic energy pact with New Delhi, which if it gets Senate approval will allow India access to Western technology and cheap atomic energy, provided it allows U.N. inspections of some of its nuclear facilities.

India was banned from nuclear trade three decades ago after it carried out its first nuclear test and refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but

the Vienna-based Nuclear Suppliers Group lifted the ban earlier this month after hard lobbying by Washington.

Sarkozy said at Monday’s summit in the southern French port of Marseille that European Union and Indian leaders had decided to “accelerate talks” aimed at reaching a free trade deal.

Singh, the leader of the world’s largest democracy and one of its fastest growing economies, said he wanted the agreement signed by the end of of 2009. The European Union is India’s largest commercial partner — ahead of China — with annual bilateral trade totalling around 60 billion euros (88 billion dollars).

But India ranks only ninth behind South Korea in the EU’s list of major trading partners.

Europe is keen to boost ties with the emerging Asian giant, which is seen as a relative haven of stability in an often volatile region which includes Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The global financial crisis also figured in the Marseille talks.

India has so far been relatively unscathed by the meltdown in the U.S. banking system, but on Monday European banks were again caught up in the turmoil, with bail-outs, sales and attacks on the shares of financial institutions multiplying across the continent.

Sarkozy said that during their talks Singh had shared the French president’s call for a global summit to establish “a new international financial system.”