Last year, the member-states of the European Union (EU) decided to review its strategy for Central Asia. In light of an announcement by Xi Jinping to invest $40 billion in Central Asia, the question arose whether the EU’s revisited Strategy for Central Asia would emerge as an alternative for the Central Asian states to the Chinese-led “Silk Road Economic Belt” initiative, a part of China’s larger “One Belt One Road” initiative.
So far, the EU’s development strategy for Central Asia has been modest, ad-hoc, and issue-based. As certain experts suggested, EU engagement in Central Asia has been reactive than proactive. The organization has been more preoccupied with mitigating adverse challenges in the region rather than exploring Central Asia from the perspective of opportunities. The EU has failed at tailoring its Central Asian policy in a coherent way and has been similarly incapable of playing a more prominent role in trade and security. The ill-defined role of the EU in Central Asia was further exacerbated by the geographical distance and strong stands of Russia for Central Asia.
Accordingly, some observers hoped that Brussels-based decision-makers finally agreed to re-evaluate their conceptual visions and approaches towards Central Asia through the recent revision of the EU’s Strategy. The EU and Central Asia: Strategy for a New Partnership was adopted by the European Council in June 2007, as it sought to place the relationship between the EU and Central Asian states on a more structured basis within the framework of a regional approach. This document outlined the priorities for EU cooperation with Central Asia as a whole region in the following spheres of influence: economic development, trade and investment, education, energy and transport, environmental policies, human rights, rule of law, good governance and democracy, common threats and inter-cultural dialogue. Prior to this framework, the EU was engaged with the region vis-à-vis its official bodies such as the Council and the European Commission, whilst bilateral relations were governed by a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.
Nonetheless, it appears that even after four revisions the EU’s Strategy for Central Asia is yet too far from being a robust visionary and policy guide. The major internal incongruity is related to the fact that EU policymakers envisioned this strategy as a very ambitious document, although the region in reality is of peripheral importance to the majority of the EU member-states. The strategy should have also envisaged the interests of all Central Asian states and at the same time approached each Central Asian country individually. Most importantly, however, the EU’s Strategy for Central Asia should have reflected the EU’s real interests in the region along with the pragmatic evaluation of the resources the organization is willing to invest in. At this stage, the declaration by the EU to invest €1 billion in Central Asia in the next 5 years pales in comparison to the multi-billion projects promised by the Chinese counterparts. In addition, the EU puts itself at risk of investing limited funds into projects of marginal value both to the EU and to the region.
Furthermore, the European policymakers have to realize that the EU’s position in Central Asia will remain secondary to that of Russia, China and the USA irrespective of the EU priorities and policies. Thus, the EU should seek constructive engagement with other actors in the region, in particularly with Russia and China. As an example, the EU may cooperate with China and Russia to counter drug and human trafficking in Central Asia and address the threats, which emanate from Afghanistan, without resorting to military intervention.
In fact, the withdrawal of the Americans troops from Afghanistan provides an excellent opportunity for the EU to establish itself as a key development player in the region. For instance, the EU may help attract investment into energy and transport infrastructure of Central Asia or develop small and medium enterprises in the region to stimulate economic growth. In this regard, the amalgamation of the EU expertise and the Chinese financial power may significantly help mitigate the effects of poverty in Central Asia. Yet, at this stage these prospects are detached from the reality and embody rather normative aspirations. Brussels-based policymakers have to decide how important Central Asia to the EU interests is, and at this stage there are no indicators that the EU engagement in the region is moving towards a more pro-active and systemic end.