In Brussels Experts and Diplomats Scrutinize EU Objectives in Central Asia

BRUSSELS – The European Union (EU)-Kazakhstan cooperation goes beyond political arrangements, forging solutions in easing visa restrictions, removing trade barriers, promoting sustainability, and transferring new technologies. Brussels-based EURACTIV media outlet organized a debate on how the EU is advancing its agenda in Central Asia, addressing Kazakhstan’s role in interregional cooperation on June 14.

Georgi Gotev, Peteris Ustubs, Lin Goethals, Oybek Shaykhov, Timur Sultangozhin. Photo credit: The Astana Times.

“Geopolitically, Central Asia has been extremely active in recent months. Its interests in cooperation and future perspectives go in the same direction with the EU,” said Director for the Middle East, Asia and Pacific in the Directorate-General for International Partnerships (DG INTPA) of the European Commission Peteris Ustubs.

A month ago, Almaty hosted the second Central Asia – EU Economic Forum. Regional business climate, digital and green transition, and transport corridors were the three prominent topics for discussion. Ustubs emphasized that Kazakhstan was the first country from the region to sign a memorandum of understanding with the EU on critical raw materials.

“We moved beyond this memorandum during the economic forum in Almaty. That time we saw our ambitions grow. We are now transitioning into a proactive agenda. Our bilateral relations are very solid,” he said.

Timur Sultangozhin, the deputy head of the mission of Kazakhstan to the EU, agreed that “both sides have a very dynamic exchange, both on political and economic agenda.”

“We [Central Asian countries] not only want to be transit states, but we also want to be supply chain hubs. We would really welcome the [EU-sponsored] Global Gateway agenda. Energy and critical raw materials in exchange for eco-friendly, green, and sustainable technologies. We have already signed a memorandum and look forward to cooperating with the EU,” said Sultangozhin.

Speaking about bilateral dialogue, he mentioned the intensified agenda of high-level meetings. A week ago, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev met with European Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski, who participated at the Astana International Forum (AIF). On May 15, Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Murat Nurtleu and European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson announced the two sides were ready to launch formal negotiations for easing the visa regime for Kazakh citizens.

“What we need right now is removing trade and travel barriers. More access, less barriers. We aim to avoid the negative impact of sanctions on the Central Asian economies, which are already under tremendous pressure today. It is also important to build capacities, for small and medium enterprises to be able to access the European market,” said Sultangozhin.

According to Ustubs, the visa liberalization process is a “very complex issue that takes time and a lot of work to be done with the country’s respective institutions, as well as certain requirements we ask to proceed to the next level.”

“After all of that, it comes to the [European Union] member states to discuss,” he added.

Europe-Uzbekistan Association for Economic Cooperation (EUROUZ) Secretary-General Oybek Shaykhov noted a gap in understanding the agenda. “Sometimes, agendas in the EU and in Central Asia differ substantially. Business is still often pursuing its specific industry goals and sanctions are a big challenge,” he said.

On its way to reaching carbon neutrality by 2060, Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev has recently mentioned that 15 percent of energy should become renewable by 2030. “Probably the EU has an important role to play there,” said Lin Goethals, director of the European Institute for Asian Studies.

According to Sultangozhin, tragic forest fires in the Abai region have a link with the growing challenges that the region is facing in regard to climate change. “Water is one of the issues, of course. We should also try to find ways on how to cooperate in emergencies and deal with crisis management. This is something that we would be willing to work on with our European partners,” he said.

Fabienne Bossuyt, the associate professor at the Ghent Institute for International and European Studies, said that “the war [in Ukraine] has paved the way for the Central Asian countries to further advance their so-called multi-vector foreign policies to rip maximum benefits from the geopolitical situation.”

In her opinion, the leverage of the EU is limited to the point that the interest of Central Asian countries in partnership with the EU is driven by the need to balance between the main neighboring powers. “Russia is aware of its shrinking circle of allies in the post-Soviet space. It is also confronted with the effects of the Western sanctions. It makes Russia look towards Central Asia. Ironically, the region has gained new prominence in the West, especially for the EU countries, which really quickly visited Central Asia,” she said.

The participants of the debate agreed Kazakhstan, its Central Asia neighbors and the EU are all interested in building strong partnerships based on mutual interest in terms of growing geopolitical challenges. Their intention to seize arising opportunities enhances a multi-layer process of developing cooperation. At the same time, the consensus point in the discussion was that closer engagement between Central Asian governments, particularly in transport, easing custom procedures, and digitalization, not only can benefit the region but expand interregional links and opportunities with the EU.

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