Brainstorming Workshop “Central Asia — Exploring EU interests and options”
The IEP Brainstorming Workshop II “Central Asia- Exploring EU interests and options” took place at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin on 19 January 2015. The workshop is the second of three gatherings, dealing with the progress and review of the Central Asian strategy, which was led by the EEAS and at the same time constitutes a priority of the Latvian Council President. The 34 participants of the workshop on the EU’s interests and options concerning Central Asia drew major attention to the continuation and refinery of the EU’s activities in the area, its current geopolitical ascension and rising interests of Russia, China, the US and even India. Despite successes, such as the EU being the region’s most important trading partner, topic and format should be reviewed and “lessons learned” should be considered.
The speakers opened the panel on interests and priorities of Central Asia, focusing on the region’s geopolitical status and the progress of the EU’s Central Asian Strategy. The panellists elucidated the strong military presence of the Russian Federation and recent economic interests of the People’s Republic of China. Also, they provided evidence by explaining recent efforts of China to foster the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the interest in the New Silk Road Initiative (SRI) to create an economic belt, which both comprise domestic and foreign intentions. Some speakers mentioned Russia’s initiative to create a free trade zone via the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) — a combined military and economic approach. China fears a weak Russia as much as its military hegemony in the region. Beyond the original scope of the panel, the speakers also referred to China’s astonishment over the EU’s recent indifference on the Central Asian region. The ensued discussion entailed issues such as the role of topically marginalised Afghanistan, questions on infrastructural projects of SRI, difficulties of trilaterally integrating Russia, its domestic issues and the EU’s functional role in China’s venture.
Subsequently, the event introduced regional and bilateral interest of the Central Asian republics and international organisations and their interests in cooperating with the EU. First, the panellists debated the question on whether multilateral or bilateral approaches in Central Asia should be pursued, leading to a combined recommendation. As the republics have very diverging needs, the approach should not be standardised. In selected areas, the speakers appreciated the EU’s efforts, although a sole Human Rights approach will be problematic. According to the round table, fighting corruption and preventing the failure of economies are the base to enable good governance and stability. Especially the case of Kazakhstan reveals that NGOs in the region either conduct social service under the favour of the government or carry out capacity building as being externally funded. Besides this, some speakers expressed recommendations to alleviate the situation and achieve viable results. Special focus was dedicated to the area of security, energy, the rule of law and ad-hoc regimes. Conditionality should be kept a possible, albeit suboptimal, choice.
Finally, the speakers discussed recommendations for operationalising a new strategy of the EU with potential partners in Central Asia. The discussion shed light on the question of whether the EEAS or national governments in the EU should be major actors. Furthermore, the speakers drew special attention to the issues of Human Rights, education, the economy and its sustainability, as well as social and national security as they serve as means to achieve higher ends. The panellists pointed out the necessity of creating a flanking strategy with regard to Afghanistan’s vacuum of power as well as internal issues in Central Asia, leading to the reluctance of the states to cooperate effectively. It was agreed that the EU can be successful only if Central Asian states welcome the EU’s help and if the EU matches format and substance in its approach.
In the concluding remarks, the speakers appreciated the EU’s perseverance and its competitive advantage for long-term approaches, but reminded the audience of the shift in paradigm since 2007 in Central Asia. Finally, the panellists observed that the EU needs a more political approach to the region and should find an appropriate balance between national and regional strategies.
By Daniel Stojanovski