SEnECA Blog Post: EU-Central Asia relations: New Opportunities for a Stronger Partnership?*

In June 2019, the European Council adopted the new EU strategy for Central Asia “The EU and Central Asia: New Oppor­tu­nities for a Stronger Partnership”. The High Repre­sen­tative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini, has presented the new strategy to the Central Asian partners at the occasion of the 15th EU-Central Asia Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on 7th July 2019. In light of these new develop­ments, Susann Heinecke (SEnECA’s consortium member and senior researcher at the Centre inter­na­tional de formation européenne) has conducted an interview with the EU Special Repre­sen­tative for Central Asia, Ambassador Peter Burian, to receive his assessment of the new EU Central Asia strategy and its imple­men­tation.

Which signi­fi­cance does Central Asia have for Europe? Are there external factors that shape that signi­fi­cance?

PB: I think we have started fully appre­ciate the signi­fi­cance of the region only recently when many important processes began, including a more active approach of players such as China and its Belt and Road initiative. We have been engaged in the region since the Central Asian states gained their indepen­dence, supporting their state-building, insti­tution-building, and supporting their strategies for sustainable development. We wanted to strengthen the resilience of the region so that the countries could address their own problems and challenges. These, in the end, might also have conse­quences for our own security and stability.

The region is also of signi­ficant impor­tance for Europe in terms of security of neigh­bouring Afgha­nistan that is a security threat for the region, but also for us including threats like violent extremism, migration and other related issues. From this point of view, Central Asia is even a closer neighbour of the EU than it seems, and in case of any major security crisis in the region, the EU will be one of the first to face the conse­quences. Last but not least, we look to the region as a young and growing market with potential for transport, for business, for trade, and also connec­tivity.

Let us come to the new EU Central Asia strategy. Why was there a necessity to update the previous strategy? What were its main deficits or short­co­mings?

PB: First of all, the previous strategy was developed in 2007, and since then, many changes have occurred in the region, including geopo­li­tical shifts. Moreover, Central Asian countries have progressed with nation-building, have streng­t­hened their identity, and so on. So, we felt the necessity to reflect these new develop­ments in our new strategy, a better focused strategy. We wanted to highlight the specific role of the EU as a supporter for moder­ni­zation and trans­for­mation in individual countries. Further, the EU wants to play a role in promoting regional coope­ration as a factor of stability and, possibly, as the only way for addressing issues and challenges like security or the impact of climate change and connec­tivity in an efficient manner.

Moreover, our partnership with Central Asia has matured and progressed since 2007, and has developed into a true partnership where we not only appre­ciate the willingness of our partners to learn from our experi­ences and best practices in trans­for­mation processes, but also see how they are more and more prepared to work with us in addressing existing global and regional challenges. In parti­cular, they work with us in helping Afgha­nistan to stabilise and find a solution to its protracted conflict. Hence, I believe that we are moving with our partnership to a quali­ta­tively new level where we benefit from each other’s knowledge, experience, and contri­bution to addressing problems together rather than indivi­dually.

What are the next steps for imple­menting the new strategy?

PB: The first step was taken in Bishkek last weekend, where the 15th EU-Central Asia minis­terial meeting was held. We presented the strategy and immediately started the discussion how to implement it. We heard very positive comments from our partners, and they were already coming with concrete ideas. In the area of security, we agreed on the expansion of our programmes BOMCA and CADAP. We are also looking to new areas such as education, which was viewed as a core priority. Our partners highlighted the impor­tance of education for their trans­for­mation and reform processes in terms of capacity building. And, last but not least, a focus on economic coope­ration and promoting the potential and oppor­tu­nities for trade and business coope­ration between the region and the European Union was very much in the focus of our discussion in Bishkek. The Kyrgyz side came with an idea to organise a first EU-Central Asia economic forum for identi­fying oppor­tu­nities, but also for discussing the condi­tions, which need to be created such as the streng­t­hening of the rule of law and good gover­nance as well as the fight against corruption. We probably have promoted them in an abstract manner so far, but now, with this very practical focus, I believe that our partners better under­stand our approach and its practical signi­fi­cance for attracting businesses.

* This is a shortened version of an interview conducted with Ambassador Peter Burian in Brussels on 11th July 2019 . The complete interview will be published in August 2019 as a EUCACIS in Brief here.