SEnECA Blog Post: Europe’s Security Stake in Central America

The European Union is tradi­tio­nally seen as a non-security focused actor. Given member state capitals’ prefe­rence to lead on national security and defence, there is a tendency to see the EU solely through the lens of non-security and to focus instead on economic questions when engaging with Brussels. Yet, this view misses a vast range of activity which is already going on as well as the fact that some key European security questions are intimately tied to Central Asia. Broadly speaking, these key issues fall into three categories: geopo­litics, terrorism and regional security. One key consi­de­ration from a European policy perspective is to think about how to focus on these issues in a more coherent way to enhance the other strands of the EU-Central Asia relati­onship.

To start with geopo­litics – Central Asia is a region where clichés of the ‘Great Games’ abound: from Mackinder’s often repeated comments about the region being the ‘pivot of Eurasia’ to the fact that four of Eurasia’s great powers are located in its immediate proximity (China, Russia, India and Iran). These are all powers with which the EU has compli­cated relati­onships (although it is important to note that the relati­onship with India is nowhere near as adver­s­arial as the other relati­onships), and therefore present an oppor­tunity for joint thinking about how to manage concerns that might emanate from these great powers. The coope­ration can be thought in terms of regional influence, regional security activity or in terms of global postures more generally. Under­standing Central Asian perspec­tives on the great powers might help enrich European responses to their activities regio­nally as well as globally. Both sides might benefit from sharing perspec­tives and ideas about what these powers are doing as well as develop strategies to manage their activity.

Turning to terrorism: an obser­vable reality of the past couple of years has been the growing number of Central Asians involved in terrorist activity in the West. Be this on the ground in Syria or in Iraq where the Turkestan Islamic Party (an Uighur group more tradi­tio­nally associated with China which has increa­singly broadened out to encompass the wider Central Asian region) has become the last non-Levantine group standing on the battle­field and has increa­singly featured Europeans and Central Asians fighting amongst its ranks.

Outside the region or the battle­field in Syria and Iraq, Central Asians have been involved in terrorist attacks around the world: incidents in New York, Stockholm, Istanbul and Saint Petersburg all involved Central Asian perpe­trators. In each of these cases, it is important to note that the respective individual’s links to Central Asian militancy were sometimes quite tenuous (for example, the New York attacker had lived in the United States for seven years prior to launching his attack and the Saint Petersburg attacker was an Uzbek-Kyrgyz who had lived in Russia for years). However, in the other two cases there was clear evidence of links to Central Asian networks. And while this may not sound surprising, it is in fact relatively new to see Central Asians involved in the global jihadist terrorist community in such a prominent way.

Finally, the question of regional security is mostly one about Afgha­nistan. A country into which many European powers and the EU have poured money, blood and effort for many years still has tremendous problems which do not appear to be receding. This is something of which Central Asians need little reminder. The ultimate answer to Afghanistan’s long-term stability is most likely to come from the region – something that Western powers have sought to instigate, but which has not materia­lized in the way they were hoping. Instead, there has been a sense of a piecemeal response, which has taken place in an ad hoc fashion. With the trans­for­mation currently underway across the region, there is an oppor­tunity for the region’s links and approaches to Afgha­nistan to change substan­tially. There have already been some efforts by Central Asia to connect with Europe on this difficult question. For example, Tashkent invited the EU High Repre­sen­tative for Foreign and Security Policy, Frederica Mogherini, as a keynote speaker at the important Samarqand Security confe­rence in 2017 and there was a renewed willingness to regio­nally discuss Afgha­nistan and coope­rative efforts. The EU-Central Asia High Level Political and Security Dialogue conducted recently included Afgha­nistan for the first time and the EU has made efforts to incor­porate Kabul into its Central Asian framework.

Both the EU and Central Asia still face diffi­culties in defining their policy interests in Afgha­nistan. The powers in Central Asia remain deeply concerned with the potential for security threats of different sorts emanating from Afgha­nistan. This is clearly something shared with Europe that is concerned about Afghanistan’s regional impact (both to Central and South Asia) as well as about the danger of terro­rists, narcotics or refugees coming to Europe. Working together makes absolute sense in order to manage and mitigate these threats and to help Afgha­nistan onto a path of greater stability.

These three security issues are of interest to the EU as well as to Central Asian powers. Together, these two regions could form the basis for a more sustained and substantial security dialogue through which European powers could use their contacts and try to affect Central Asian leaders in their approach to manage these problems at home. When thinking of problems around terrorism and violent extremism in parti­cular, there is consi­derable capacity for learning and exchange of ideas which could have a positive effect on both sides.

Europe is not tradi­tio­nally seen as a hard power security actor. This charac­te­ri­zation is somewhat unfair consi­dering the volume of security-related work that the EU does. Within the Central Asian context, the work already done can become a useful foundation for a more serious and sustained bilateral relati­onship, which would help both powers to deal with some key regional security concerns as well as with some of the larger global security trends.

SEnECA Blog Contri­bution by Raffaello Pantucci from the Royal United Services Institute