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.