Belgium – Brussels : The European Union is facing a difficult geopolitical climate; a mood of crisis seems to surround the “Old Continent”, while traditional channels of cooperation, innovation and mutual benefits – the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East, the Black Sea – are now areas where opposing voices and wills are clashing. Beyond these regions, the whole world is developing quickly, and China, the “rising” power, seems
to be balancing US supremacy.
In this crowded world stage, global actors like Russia are rising (again), while regional powers, such as Turkey or Iran, are increasing their role in our European neighbourhood.
The region where all these forces meet and merge together is Central Asia; a “new” area of interest for the European Union. After the end of the Cold War, the Central Asia region has undergone a major shift, with the creation of new states which were previously Soviet Republics of the Soviet Union. Now, after nearly 25 years of independence, it is time for the EU to rethink our approach to Central Asia. Despite the compact shape of the region and a relatively low population, Central Asia is rich in traditions and very diverse in its cultural, economic and social features. The different “stans” – as these countries are typically labelled – are facing many different internal challenges and are under pressure from a range of powerful neighbours. Russia can rely on the Soviet cultural heritage and common infrastructure (like pipelines, railways and land transportation); China on its huge economic power; Turkey on its linguistic, religious and cultural ties; and Iran on its dynamic economy. Among these four players, what can the role of the European Union be? Is there space for the EU in a region so crowded with other players?
Today, the different “stans”, despite their internal differences, are a dynamic area where businesses and a general economic development are quickly transforming the traditional landscape.
The “good old times” of massive scale cotton cultivation and agriculture are gone; governments and companies are increasingly investing in the extraction of raw materials, high technologies, factories, services, research and development. Each of the different states are developing in different ways, but according to many analyses the whole area has a brilliant future: Kazakhstan, for example, can be a “first world economy” in 2050, and many other countries have huge potential for their future development.
However, the region’s potential is hampered by many difficulties, such as poor infrastructure, economic imbalances between regions, the lack of an attractive business climate, corruption, the weakness of the rule of law, mutual diffidence and many environmental problems, such as the disaster of the Aral Sea.
Since the launch of the first EU Central Asian Strategy in 2007, many things have changed in Central Asia; as a result, in the latter part of 2015, the European Parliament has extensively debated how to reshape the European approach to this crucial area. During past years, the bilateral relations between the EU and the region have deepened and transformed; The EU has already signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, while the negotiations for an “Enhanced PCA” has been recently concluded with Kazakhstan, which underlines the closer relations between Brussels and Astana.
These legal instruments reflect the increasing level of dialogue and cooperation between the partners, and are a necessary framework to develop further areas of cooperation such as trade, security, environment, energy, rule of law, human rights and democracy. Only a comprehensive approach could provide mutual benefits for both the EU and Central Asia: the increasing bilateral trade and the development of the local economies should be considered a tool for both partners, not a goal.
Furthermore, the region suffers from mutual distrust between the neighbouring states, and the EU – after more than fifty years of Union – can provide enough expertise to support the development of peace, multilateral dialogue and confidence-building measures, as well as common security initiatives (i.e.: drugs, corruption) and counter-terrorism. At the same time, EU expertise and technology should be utilised to assess the serious environmental problems of the region, especially the scarcity of water, and the need to further promote sustainable development and a wise use of natural resources.
Education is another sphere where the European Union should support the countries of the Central Asia region.
The lack of a skilled workforce is a challenge for both local and European companies; therefore we must support high-education reforms, vocational training, scholarships and ad hoc educational programs that are also funded by the EU. Education is the main tool to build democracy and boost the socio-economic development of these countries; while at the same time, ensure effective responses to marginalization and the radicalization of the young generations.
Finally, it is important for Europe to be present in Central Asia in order to provide an alternative model to the frameworks that have already been implemented by some countries, such as the “One Belt One Road” project of Beijing or the Eurasian Union of Russia. Many analysts are quite sceptical on this issue, questioning how the EU could be a competitor of these powerful countries.
This question is misleading. The European Union must be present in Central Asia and must strengthen its relations using a different approach, based on mutual respect, win-win cooperation and which is free from neo-imperialist ambitions. Similarly, Russia and China are both crucial players to ensure Central Asian stability: we should not be afraid of cooperating with them until everyone plays by the rules and respects international standards. The appeal of the EU is a powerful mix of economic dynamism, a high commitment for democracy and strong technological know-how.
A wise mix of these elements will be of added value for both the European Union and Central Asia, a region that the EU should not overlook anymore.