NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads to a European Union summit this week, seeking to patch up a four-year diplomatic feud with Italy that has grown toxic enough to threaten New Delhi’s ambitions to become a bigger global player.
India hopes the Brussels summit will bring a thaw in ties with Italy, and keep it from blocking the Asian nation’s membership of a key global group on missile technology, after Rome single-handedly scuppered India’s bid to join last year.
“We have always wanted a vibrant, robust partnership with Italy,” said Indian foreign ministry official Nandini Singla. “We see Italy as a key EU partner.”
The row between the two nations stems from India’s arrest of two Italian Marines to stand trial for the killing of two fishermen off the southern Indian coast in 2012, a crime Italy said was beyond the jurisdiction of Indian courts.
One of the men has been allowed to return home for medical treatment, while the other is confined to the Italian embassy. Italy has sought international arbitration of the case, with a United Nations tribunal set to hold hearings this week.
An Italian government source said Italy seeks the return of the second Marine held at its New Delhi embassy, since the trial process in India had effectively ended after both parties agreed to international arbitration.
“There’s no reason for him to stay in India for the arbitration. We have asked that he be allowed to follow the proceedings from his own country,” said the source, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the case.
India has joined the arbitration process and would respect the tribunal’s decision, said Singla, who is the joint secretary for Western Europe at the Indian foreign ministry.
“This is not really a bilateral issue anymore, it has been taken out of the bilateral ambit and to an international tribunal.”
She did not say how India would respond to the Italian request, however.
The sailors were part of a military team protecting an Italian oil tanker when, they say, they mistook a fishing boat for a pirate vessel and fired warning shots. Two fishermen died.
The EU plans to raise the issue of the Marines with Modi, according to an internal EU council note seen by Reuters, which said that such cases can influence the global fight on piracy.
For India, membership of the Missile Technology Control Regime, along with three other groups controlling the transfer of nuclear and other armaments is part of a diplomatic campaign to become a global player.
The MTCR is due to meet in October, when New Delhi will renew its bid for membership.
“We are interested in membership of all four regimes, we are engaged in dialogue with the groups as well as individual members,” said Amandeep Singh Gill, head of the international security division of the Indian foreign ministry.
Additional reporting by Steve Scherer in ROME and Francesco Guarascio in BRUSSELS; Editing by Clarence Fernandez