Evaluating EU’s Central Asia Strategy: Five-Year Mark and Future Expectations

It is time for the European Union to revise its strategy towards the Central Asian countries. 

Its old strategy is already five years old and no longer corresponds to the realities and situation both in Central Asia and in the European Union. In fact, we can clearly see how back in 2019, Romania, in its presidency program of the Council of the European Union, noted the importance of revitalized relations with the countries of Central Asia. After the outbreak of the military conflict in Ukraine, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, said that the EU did not pay enough attention to the countries of Central Asia. 

Eldaniz Gusseinov.

Now, we may be on the verge of significant changes, as the first full-fledged EU-Central Asia summit in Uzbekistan is approaching. The summit will be attended by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. It is also likely that some additional EU leaders will want to join the event. This event is important for the current EU leadership because of the upcoming European Parliament elections, which could change the balance of power within the European Union. Regardless of which political forces in Europe will strengthen their positions after the upcoming elections, it is necessary to revise the existing strategy of the European Union. The role of the Central Asian countries in this should not be minimized, as the EU’s interest in Central Asia could diminish again. 

What are the recent trends in European foreign policy in Central Asia

As the EU formulated its strategy for 2019 in consultation with Central Asian experts, it was decided to extend this analysis to a joint roadmap for deepening EU-Central Asia relations in 2023. Furthermore, within the EU, it is important to consider the voice of larger powers such as Germany and France. These countries have also signed declarations and statements with Central Asian countries for 2023, which should determine the future direction of cooperation.

The evolution of priorities in EU-Central Asia cooperation over time, especially in the 2007 and 2019 EU-Central Asia Strategies and the 2023 Joint Roadmap, shows an adaptation to changing geopolitical, economic, and social conditions. The 2007 EU-Central Asia Strategy focused on politics and human rights, with an emphasis on democratization. Economic cooperation focused on trade and investment, while energy and infrastructure, especially traditional energy sources, were also central themes. Environmental and water issues were addressed, but not yet in relation to climate change. Security issues were present but not as comprehensive as in more recent strategies. Culture and education were important aspects but less dominant. 

By 2019, the political and human rights agenda of the EU-Central Asia strategy was deepened, with a focus on cooperation. Economic cooperation was strengthened, emphasizing economic reforms, trade, investment, and sustainable connectivity. Energy policy adapted to climate change, aiming for climate and environmental resilience, including clean and sustainable energy. There was an increased emphasis on security cooperation, including border management and addressing common challenges. Youth, education, and culture received more attention, especially in terms of innovation and cultural exchange. The importance of civil society engagement and parliamentary cooperation was also recognized.

The 2023 Joint Roadmap will continue these trends. Political cooperation and dialogue remain important, with an emphasis on increased interregional cooperation. In economic relations, greater emphasis will be placed on sustainable development and integration of the European Green Deal. Energy and climate neutrality have become clear objectives, while security remains a constant priority. Interpersonal contacts and exchanges have become more important. 

Thus, the focus has shifted from traditional to sustainable development, security cooperation has increased, more attention has been paid to social and cultural aspects, political dialogue has deepened, and global challenges such as climate change and international security have been incorporated into regional cooperation. The European Union is increasingly prioritizing economic cooperation over political contacts. This is also enshrined in the documents signed following the summit meetings between the President of Kazakhstan and the Heads of State and Government of Germany and France.

On this basis, the interests of the European Union in Kazakhstan are gradually crystallizing, focusing on competing for influence with Russia and China by expanding its economic presence. This economic presence primarily concerns the development of trade and economic relations, as European companies have lost the opportunity to work directly with Russia and Belarus. It is important for the EU to gain access to the natural resources of Central Asian countries. Therefore, in 2022, Kazakhstan and the EU signed a Memorandum of Understanding on strategic partnership to create sustainable value chains in raw materials, batteries, and green hydrogen.

Has the European Union become a geopolitical player in Central Asia?

At this stage, it is too early to state that the European Union has indeed become a geopolitical player at the level of Russia and China in Central Asia. The European Union has positioned itself as a player in Central Asia not out of geopolitical “interests or games,” but also with the aim of competing with major players such as Russia and China. 

However, UK expert Rick Fawn noted that compared to other EU statements and actions, the EU’s 2019 strategy points to competitive strategies that are serious and focused enough to make it a geopolitical actor. According to him, the problem is the geographical remoteness of Central Asia, which is why the EU views the region as a “neighbor of neighbors.” 

Fawn believes that the real rivalry can be seen in five key areas of engagement where the EU believes it has a comparative advantage over its competitors. These areas include the promotion of regionalism, which comes in two forms: first, EU support for regionalism in Central Asia and, second, the integration of Central Asia into various structures, including economic and functional initiatives. Other areas include the promotion of democracy, human rights, and independent civil society, as well as support for higher education. 

In this context, one can identify a certain EU interest in Central Asia after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine – to counter Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asia. This follows from Politico’s report on a secret European Union document, which mentions Kazakhstan as one of the countries for strengthening EU influence to counterbalance China and Russia. A draft German Foreign Ministry document obtained by the German news magazine Der Spiegel shows that Germany plans to shift its focus to Central Asian countries to mitigate the potential dominance of Russia or China.

If we look at the existing achievements, it is premature to say that the EU is really challenging the influence of Russia and China. For the EU to do so, a transportation link between Europe and Central Asia is needed, which points to the need to finance transportation projects. 

According to statistics, China has already invested approximately $24 billion in Central Asian infrastructure between 2013 and 2018. Within the framework of the Global Gateway initiative, the EU has announced the provision of 10 billion euros (considering ongoing and realized projects) to support infrastructure projects in Central Asia. However, there are a number of problems. Firstly, only 3 billion euros, not 10 billion euros, come from European institutions. The European Investment Bank (EIB) has signed memoranda of understanding totaling 1.47 billion euros with the governments of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Uzbekistan, as well as with the Development Bank of Kazakhstan. These loans will be possible thanks to guarantees provided by the European Commission. 

Then, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) signed a memorandum of understanding with Kazakhstan, which will have an investment portfolio of 1.5 billion euros, and projects to develop transport links in the Central Asian region are already in the pipeline. However, as of 2024, the EU has invested about 7 billion euros, which is significantly lower than the investments from the Chinese side.

Prospects for European Union’s involvement in Central Asia

The European Union has the intention of becoming a geopolitical player in Central Asia that can influence the degree of Chinese and Russian presence in the region. To reach this level, the European Union needs to accomplish two things: 

  1. Resolve the situation in the South Caucasus and maintain good relations with Azerbaijan. 
  2. Continue to invest in infrastructure in Central Asia to create interconnectedness.

Solving both tasks puts the EU at a clear impasse. Against the backdrop of French accusations of Azerbaijan’s involvement in the New Caledonia protests and further strengthening of Armenia-France relations, problems around Azerbaijan-Europe relations may grow. 

Regarding infrastructure development, the European Union cannot significantly influence the situation in Central Asia by providing loans and credits. Additionally, both Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, where China’s presence is very strong, will not take part in the announced funding from the European Union. 

Against this background, the European Union has two advantages: firstly, the ability to consider the experience of China and Russia in the region and try to build on it to achieve greater success with fewer risks. Secondly, a wealth of soft power resources to improve its perception among the region’s population. 

To leverage these strategic advantages and truly become a geopolitical player, the European Union needs to develop regular mechanisms of interaction with the Central Asian countries, rather than only remembering the region during crises. The EU should build a dialogue with the expert community of Central Asian countries and take into account the opinions of experts who challenge popular views, and stop considering the region solely through the prism of raw materials. This approach can distinguish the European Union from China and Russia in the region.

The author is Eldaniz Gusseinov, a non-resident research fellow at Haydar Aliyev Center for Eurasian Studies of the Ibn Haldun University, Istanbul. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of The Astana Times. 

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