Diplomat reports on the Eurasian Council on Foreign Affairs’ findings on the EU’s New Strategy for Central Asia
CLOSER DIALOGUE, FOCUS on concrete results, a realistic, pragmatic and state-by-state approach and ‘soft power’ initiatives were among the key recommendations included in the Eurasian Council on Foreign Affairs’ (ECFA) recent report outlining proposals for the EU’s upcoming Strategy for Central Asia.
“Our analysis suggests that the European Union should direct its focus in a realistic and practical way that plays to the strengths of the EU. And we think that it has to be streamlined and focussed especially on ‘soft power’ areas,” said former EU Commissioner for External Relations and current ECFA Advisory Council Chair Dr Benita Ferrero-Waldner of the report that was released at ECFA’s fifth annual meeting at Cliveden House in early December.
The paper includes expert contributions from 16 international institutions including the UN, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and several universities.
Former Italian Foreign Minister and Chamber President of the Italian Council of State Franco Frattini presented the report to an audience including distinguished statesmen, diplomats, business leaders and representatives of the armed forces, outlining the key recommendations addressed to the European External Action Service aimed at helping make the strategy more effective.
He noted the strategy must first of all use the lessons learned from past experience of negotiating and implementing the current strategy for Central Asia, first devised in 2007 under the German EU Presidency. These include increasing the EU’s visibility in the region, narrowing down the projects and areas of cooperation with the aim of enhancing their efficiency and considering the opinions of the regional states, while avoiding unnecessary competition with major regional actors such as Chinaand Russiaand promoting cohesion among European countries.
While the current state of EU-Central Asia relations is good, there are still many goals to achieve, he added.
The primary aim in the region today should be to achieve concrete results and instil a pragmatic approach. This implies a shift from a dialogue-based relationship to a more practical attitude with specific projects aimed at achieving tangible results, Mr Frattini noted.
The report also recommends the EU adopt a state-by-state policy in regard to relations with Central Asian countries. The previous strategy lacked nuance and didn’t consider regional differences, Mr Frattini said.
Improving health services, justice and law enforcement, as well as fighting corruption were all highlighted as important ‘soft power’ initiatives to focus on in the future.
The new strategy should also aim to continue supporting foreign direct investment in the Central Asian region while accounting for significant shifts in the regional economy, including the move towards digitisation and creating the Astana International Financial Centre, an important new hub operating under English common law, notes the report.
Instead of competing with the Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the EU should concentrate on cooperation. This should become another goal of the new strategy, Mr Frattini said.
Concluding his presentation, he noted the EU should focus its work in the Central Asian region in certain key areas including security, education, sustainable development and investment.
Speaking at the event, EU Special Representative for Central Asia Peter Burian confirmed the EU is currently finalising consultations with its partners on the new strategy.
“Within this very large consultation process, we have heard many of those suggestions and proposals and we probably need to come down to earth and narrow down the number of priorities to increase their results [which], I think, will be reflected in our strategy,” he said.
Mr Burian noted the main difference between the current strategy and the new one is the completely different atmosphere in the region, and a better understanding of the value of cooperation for addressing regional challenges. He was referring to the positive trends that have been taking place in Central Asian regional relations over the past two years and that have already produced notable differences in both bilateral relations and regional dynamics.
The future strategy will focus, Mr Burian added, on two key priorities – security and sustainable development. He agreed that rather than trying to pursue the ‘Eurocentric’ approach by pushing certain solutions, the EU wants to base them on the national development strategies of the countries in the region.
The recent EU strategy on connectivity with Asia, which includes infrastructure, digital, energy and people-to-people connectivity, will also be taken into account in the new approach. He suggested it should be viewed not as connectivity throughCentral Asia, but rather as connectivity inCentral Asia.
Mr Burian remarked on the dramatic change in the region regarding Afghanistan– countries that used to see Afghanistan mostly as a threat now see it as an opportunity, which provides an additional platform for cooperation.
Kazakh Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Roman Vassilenko noted that the opinions voiced at the press conference for the launch of the report were remarkably similar to those proposed by Kazakhstan.
“I would like to commend the European Union for the very elaborate and inclusive review process of the new EU Strategy for Central Asia. All of the countries were invited to submit their proposals, which we duly did, and many events involving various stakeholders took place in the region and beyond. So, I think the result of this process should be very coherent,” he said.
He elaborated on the proposals Kazakhstan submitted to the EU, highlighting cooperation in areas such as the rule of law, education, private entrepreneurship, with a strong focus on female entrepreneurship, and regional development.
In terms of mechanisms proposed by Kazakhstan, Mr Vassilenko suggested creating a single online portal that would combine all of the strategy’s information and its supporting documents. The portal would make the strategy, its various platforms and projects as well as the opportunities this creates, more visible and understandable for businesses and individuals in both Europe and Central Asia.
During the Meeting Dr Benita Ferrero-Waldner met with Ambassador Peter Burian and Mr Thomas Mayr-Harting of the European External Action Service. Ambassador Burian indicated that recommendations from the ECFA’s newly-published report on the EU’s new Strategy for Central Asia would be incorporated into the EU’s final Strategy document.
Both EU officials delivered insightful remarks to assembled guests after the formal dinner later that evening. Former Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel, PC, MP was introduced by Dr Ferrero-Waldner as the newest member of the ECFA Advisory Council, and delivered the concluding Vote of Thanks.