IEP Lunch Debate with H.E. Ambassador Peter Burian

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H.E. Peter Burian, EU Special Representative for Central Asia, gave a speech on the topic of “Prospects of EU-Central Asia Relations” during an IEP public event at the Representation of the European Commission in Berlin on 4 July 2017. Introductory remarks were given by Patrick Lobis, Foreign and Economic Affairs official of the European Commission in Germany, and Prof. Dr. Mathias Jopp, Director of the Institute for European Politics.

Ambassador Burian’s speech and the subsequent discussion mainly addressed three aspects of EU-Central Asia relations: the strategic importance of Central Asia for the EU, recent developments and challenges that the region is facing, and elements of the EU’s engagement.

It was noted that the region has a specific strategic importance for the EU in terms of a gateway between Europe and Asia. The EU is thereby aware of its commitment to security, stability and sustainable development, but also of the significant potential of a young and growing market for trade and investment. Due to the fact that the EU today has a better understanding of the challenges that the countries are facing, it can increasingly become more engaged in the region. The current development of Central Asia is influenced by various problems, especially those of weakened economies and increasing inequality, caused by low global prices of oil and natural gas; the increasing presence of ISIS in the north of Afghanistan, with specific risk for the security situation; the growing impact of climate change; and a lack of democratization in some countries. The smooth power transition in Uzbekistan was mentioned as a factor which might influence the region’s stability in a positive way, and which could lead to strengthened cooperation with the EU.

The EU would need to convince Central Asian governments for facilitating dialogue with the civil society, in order to provide more space for freedom of expression, build more open societies and economies, and implement the initiated reforms. To that end, the EU has established a well-structured architecture for bilateral and regional dialogue in the past ten years since Germany under its EU Presidency initiated the first EU Strategy for Central Asia. The partners see the EU as a balancing power in the region, and as a source of technology and investment, which is considered a necessity for the modernization and diversification of their economies. In turn, demanded presence of the EU in the region on behalf of the partners gives the EU certain leverage in shaping transformation processes (rule of law, good governance, and human rights).

Mr. Burian emphasized that the EU wants to remain a relevant player in Central Asia. To preserve its influence, the EU needs to refocus on mechanisms of cooperation, reacting to new tendencies and situations on the ground, such as the increasing political influence of Russia or the economic dominance of China and other players in the region, notably Iran and Turkey. He suggested, the EU should be following a soft policy agenda in terms of promoting education, economic growth, good governance and border management. Increased demands for more investments, advanced technologies, trade, and economic cooperation should not be neglected. He mentioned in this connection, preparations for a new programme supporting the development of the private sector. In general, Mr. Burian endorses the promotion of greater involvement of the European Investment Bank in the region, especially by supporting green economy and improving business and investment climate for European companies. Connectivity is also seen as an important factor for developing the region of Central Asia. Therefore, win-win collaborations should be achieved. Furthermore, the EU is open to cooperation with all players in the region; however, not as a subcontractor of China or anyone else.

Mr. Burian further noted that to ensure better visibility, the EU should enhance its strategic communication in the region. Indeed, the EU constitutes the biggest donor in the region, but citizens or even governments do not possess the full knowledge about the actions of the EU and the amount of money it invests. For this reason, the EU needs to develop a new effective communication strategy to promote its goals and messages in a better way. That said, a natural competition for integration does indeed exist, yet the EU does not take part in any rivalry for political influence.

In the ensuing lively discussion with the audience, the demographic, geopolitical and infrastructural development of the region was also discussed, for example with regard to the influence of China in Central Asia. Mr. Burian indicated that he does not see a major influx of migrants from Central Asia into the EU. The focus, in his eyes, lies on the creation of working opportunities and the expansion of digital connectivity in the region. China and India are therefore seen as important cooperation partners in various areas of regional development.

Author: Paul Leon Wagner

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