The European Parliament (EP) held a hearing May 26 on the European Union’s Strategy for Central Asia. The discussions offered a reason to hope that the EU can refine its approach in a way that allows Brussels to play a more effective role in promoting regional stability and prosperity.
Over the years, it has been apparent that some MEPs are willing to overlook the deplorable human rights records of Central Asian states, arguing that engagement is crucial and that setting pre-conditions for such engagement makes little sense due to a lack of leverage. Others believe the EU will never be able to establish fruitful partnerships with Central Asian states unless those states are compelled to improve their democratization performance through the setting of benchmarks. These differences will soon resurface when the EP considers finalizing a long awaited Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Turkmenistan. On May 25, the EP’s Foreign Affairs Committee moved to postpone that debate from June until at least July.
A relatively small number of MEPs attended the May 26 hearing, which focused on the geo-strategic and security situation of the region, as well as examining energy- and water-related issues. It additionally assessed the successes and limitations of the EU’s approach to the region. In general, Central Asia has not ranked high on the EP’s list of priorities, especially now that the Middle East and North Africa are holding the spotlight. MEP attention is also attracted to rising powers, such as China, India and Brazil. Within this context, it is important that the hearing took a broad look at Central Asian developments.
Taking a broader look should help MEPs assess the importance of Central Asia in the fields of security and energy. This, in turn, should encourage MEPs to pay closer attention to the region.
Hopefully, the growing realization that Central Asia is a strategically important area can help MEPs harmonize their differences and settle on a unified approach toward the region. The outcomes of current debates will be incorporated into an upcoming EP report on the EU Central Asia Strategy that is planned for release in October. In preparing the report, the EP Foreign Affairs Committee met with Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva in early March, held a hearing on human rights in Turkmenistan and paid a working visit to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in late April. In early June, committee members are scheduled to meet with Tajik President Imomali Rahmon.
The biggest challenge for the EU at present seems to lie in the security field, where it has so far been a marginal player in Central Asia. Neil Melvin, a program director at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and an advisor to the EU Central Asia Monitoring (EUCAM) program, described the present EU strategy as being “fuzzy on security interests and objectives.” With the start of the “end game” in Afghanistan, with NATO and US troops expected to start a phased withdrawal soon, the Central Asian security environment could very well take a turn for the worse, Melvin added. In response to such a possibility, Melvin said the EU should consider an approach that links programs for Central Asia to those covering Afghanistan, just as Washington has linked Afghanistan to Pakistan in its AfPak approach.
Water-related issues are growing in importance for the EU in Central Asia. But to have a positive impact, the EU is finding that it must find ways to surmount daunting obstacles. Ambassador Márton Krasznai of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe stressed that Europe needs to combine technical capacity-building with high-level political dialogue. The former will be costly and the latter difficult due to the mistrust and competition among Central Asian states. It is this distrust that blocks progress on the creation of new water management infrastructure, which, in theory, could both benefit upstream and downstream countries in providing irrigation water and satisfy energy needs.
To date, there have been few success stories arising from the EU’s Central Asia Strategy. Paul Quinn-Judge, a Central Asia expert with the International Crisis Group, called the EU strategy “overstretched and under focused.” There are just too many priorities with insufficient funding and staff to implement projects, or to provide comprehensive analysis. The EU now has an opportunity to refine its approach and expand its influence in Central Asian capitals. To date, authoritarian regimes in Central Asia have appeared to regard the EU as merely a source of funding, rather than a political partner. Such a perception obviously has to change. Hopefully the upcoming EP report will offer proposals on how shortcomings in the EU’s regional strategy can be remedied.
Jos Boonstra is the head European Union Central Asia Monitoring (EUCAM) Programme, which operates under the auspices of the Madrid-based Foundation for International Relations and External Dialogue. EUCAM also receives support from the Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet operates under OSF’s auspices.