The EU is resolutely engaging with the CIS states trying not only to advance economic integration and to encourage democratic reforms and transformation in the region, but also to tie them closer to the Union and create a European sphere of influence. However, the EU has not yet managed to find a comprehensive approach for all of the states. The EU’s failure to leave its political footprint and make a difference on the ground is especially evident in Central Asia.

The five Central Asian countries are not part of the European Neighborhood Policy, but are covered by the EU’s Central Asia strategy adopted in 2007. This strategy officially aims to strengthen relations and cooperation between the EU and the five Central Asian countries in areas such as education, trade, rule of law, environment or border management, but it can also be understood as tool to diversify the EU’s energy supplies. The strategy receives support from the typical EU “carrots”: EU financial assistance and favorable access to the EU’s internal market through a Generalized Scheme of Preferences. The creation of an EU Special Representative for Central Asia in 2005 intended to give the strategy a face in Brussels. Furthermore, after the Lisbon Treaty’s entry into force, the EU opened up diplomatic delegations in four out of five Central Asian states.

But, even though the region holds geostrategic importance for the EU because of its rich energy resources and its shared borders with China, Afghanistan, and the Middle East, the EU has not managed to build sustainable, close ties able to replace vertical dependence on Russia. The Central Asian countries themselves have a vital interest in expanding relations with the EU to diversify their foreign relations. However, so far the options offered by the EU have been to weak, especially in terms of security guarantees. In terms of trade, the EU has successfully established itself as the main trading partner of the region, accounting for about one third of Central Asia’s external trade. Nonetheless, Central Asian exports to the EU are limited to few commodities like cotton, metals and crude oil. The same holds true for EU exports to the region, which are concentrated on machinery and transport equipment. Even though the statistics look good in terms of quantity, economic relations between Central Asia and the EU are neither diversified nor balanced.

The EU wants to fuel the formation of a democratic regional system in Central Asia. However, this plan has not succeeded thus far, and the EU has been operating below its potential. The reasons for Europe’s marginality in this region are manifold. First of all, EU integration does not represent an equivalent alternative to integration with Russia, on whose goodwill, financial support and security guarantees most of the Central Asian states significantly depend. The EU’s integrational offers are weak; in fact the EU is unclear about what it is seeking in this region. Second, while the EU utilizes of “carrots” to promote reforms, it does not utilizes effective “sticks” in terms of pressure and sanction mechanisms to “parent” its partner countries in case of non-compliance. The EU can at most suspend Partnership and Cooperation agreements or withhold financial assistance. Third, while the Union excels at high rhetoric, few concrete actions and several political inconsistencies mostly do not match the rhetoric’s standards. Moreover, the degree of heterogeneity of the Central Asian countries requires a more differentiated-rather-than-a-uniform-one-fits-all approach.

One positive effect of EU engagement in Central Asia should be noted here: the EU does contribute to the diversification of foreign relations of the Central Asian countries, providing them with more political options from which to choose. But, in order to become a real alternative to Russia or China, the EU must to offer more advantageous policy options. The EU’s new Central Asia strategy, which in fact is overdue, should clearly answer the question about what the EU’s concrete aims in Central Asia and more importantly, about how much the Central Asia states have to gain from integration with the EU. Furthermore, the strategy should outline the EU’s engagement and support after the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan this year. What Central Asian states need most of all is reliable security guarantees by the EU.

Ann-Sophie Gast is an intern at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

  • Ann-Sophie Gast