The EU's new Central Asia strategy

30-01-2019

Central Asia is an often overlooked region, but one that is gradually becoming more important for the European Union. Although the Central Asian countries are less of a priority than those of the Eastern Neighbourhood, the EU has steadily intensified diplomatic relations with the region, at the same time as ramping up development aid. European trade and investment, above all in Kazakhstan, have made the EU the main economic player in Central Asia, ahead of Russia and China. However, former overlord Russia does not seem to resent European influence in Central Asia as much as in eastern Europe, and the region has avoided becoming a zone of geopolitical confrontation. The EU's 2007 Central Asia strategy defines the priorities for EU development aid and diplomatic activity in the region. These include responding to security threats, protecting human rights, promoting economic development, developing transport and energy links, and ensuring environmental protection. Since then, progress in these areas has been uneven. Nevertheless, the issues identified in 2007 are still highly relevant today, and will probably remain at the heart of future EU policy in Central Asia. However, there have also been several major developments since the strategy was adopted: China's Belt and Road Initiative is reviving overland trade routes connecting Europe and Asia via the region; in Uzbekistan, a more conciliatory foreign policy under the country's new president has eased regional tensions and opened the door to cooperation between formerly hostile neighbours. At the same time, Central Asian countries are becoming more interested in engaging with Afghanistan. A new strategy, expected for mid-2019, will therefore need to spell out how the EU responds to these new dynamics.

Central Asia is an often overlooked region, but one that is gradually becoming more important for the European Union. Although the Central Asian countries are less of a priority than those of the Eastern Neighbourhood, the EU has steadily intensified diplomatic relations with the region, at the same time as ramping up development aid. European trade and investment, above all in Kazakhstan, have made the EU the main economic player in Central Asia, ahead of Russia and China. However, former overlord Russia does not seem to resent European influence in Central Asia as much as in eastern Europe, and the region has avoided becoming a zone of geopolitical confrontation. The EU's 2007 Central Asia strategy defines the priorities for EU development aid and diplomatic activity in the region. These include responding to security threats, protecting human rights, promoting economic development, developing transport and energy links, and ensuring environmental protection. Since then, progress in these areas has been uneven. Nevertheless, the issues identified in 2007 are still highly relevant today, and will probably remain at the heart of future EU policy in Central Asia. However, there have also been several major developments since the strategy was adopted: China's Belt and Road Initiative is reviving overland trade routes connecting Europe and Asia via the region; in Uzbekistan, a more conciliatory foreign policy under the country's new president has eased regional tensions and opened the door to cooperation between formerly hostile neighbours. At the same time, Central Asian countries are becoming more interested in engaging with Afghanistan. A new strategy, expected for mid-2019, will therefore need to spell out how the EU responds to these new dynamics.