EU and Central Asian Opportunities: European Council President Highlights Positive Relations During Central Asia Tour
President of the European Council Donald Tusk embarked on a historic tour through Central Asia from May 29-June 2, visiting Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. This trip comes two weeks after the EU updated its 2007 strategy for Central Asia and represents its commitment to Central Asia. The EU negotiated Partnership and Cooperation Agreements with these countries when they became independent, and are currently in various stages of discussion for establishing Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (EPCA) with these countries. An EPCA between the EU and Kazakhstan and has already been signed, and is being ratified by member nations, as President Tusk noted in Nur-Sultan. Meanwhile, the EU has agreed to prepare a EPCA with Tajikistan. The EPCAs provide frameworks for increased trade, reduced customs, and greater foreign investment in the region by the EU.
Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreements
According to the EU’s January 2019 Central Asia strategy briefing, the major players in Central Asia are Russia, China, and the EU. Whereas China invests in Central Asian infrastructure projects, the EU has focused on investing in education, human rights, and development projects — reducing potential for competition between the EU and China in the region. To this end, the EU has allotted over $1 billion for the period of 2014-2020 on development cooperation with Central Asia. Over $500 million of this has been earmarked for regional projects, and almost $135 million is for the E.U.’s Erasmus+ program.
The EU’s strategy for building Central Asia’s economy, and the economy of its countries, has been through investing in its people through development aid. In fact, Central Asia gets more EU development aid per capita than most other global regions (Southern Asia receives only three and a half times the amount of funding, despite having a population 30 times the size of Central Asia). The EU’s reasoning for this is the geostrategic importance of this region for linking Europe’s market with that of East Asia. To this end, in addition to education and development aid programs, the EU has established the Border Management in Central Asia program (BOMCA) and Central Asia Drug Action Program. In addition to tackling Central Asia’s security threats, the EU has continued the Rule of Law Initiative it set up under its 2007 Central Asia strategy, in which it provides training for Central Asian lawyers, as well as provides expertise on reforming the legal systems of the region.
While in Tajikistan (May 29-30), his first stop of his Central Asia tour, President Tusk visited the Tajik-Afghan border, as well as Lake Sarez. In remarks at the press conference in Dushanbe, President Tusk praised President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon. Tusk reaffirmed the EU’s position on investing in Tajikistan, in development, trade, and education opportunities, as well as building ‘transport, energy, and digital connections.’ He also spoke about his visit to the Afghanistan border, remarking how he “was really impressed by how much [they] are doing to protect it,” and pledging to increase the EU’s support to BOMCA.
President Tusk then spoke about the beauty of the region and his visit to both Lake Sarez and the Pamirs; he also commented on the visible impact climate change has left on the region, reaffirming Europe’s commitment to combating climate change globally. He concluded by speaking about the common history shared by Tajikistan and his native Poland. He emphasized the need for human rights, and exhorted President Rahmon to continue his work on building a society based on the rule of law in Tajikistan.
President Tusk landed in Kazakhstan on May 31, where he spoke with interim President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. In the press conference held in Nur-Sultan, Tusk praised Kazakhstan for creating a dynamic environment ripe for continued and enhanced cooperation between the EU and Kazakhstan. He stressed that the Central Asian country is a “bridge between Europe and the Far East, and between Russia and South Asia,” and that he hopes to witness a deeper cooperation on issues such as “energy, transport, and digital connections.” The European Council President went on to affirm the EU as Kazakhstan’s “first trading partner and foreign investor,” discussing how the EPCA between the EU and Kazakhstan will soon be ratified by all EU Member States and that the EU has already started implementing it.
Concluding his tour in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (May 31-June 2), President Tusk met with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. During their meeting, they spoke about the status of bilateral relations between the EU and Uzbekistan, which included topics on regional and bilateral cooperation, climate change, environmental protection, and border management.
The EU’s Commitment
President Tusk’s tour of Central Asia represented the EU’s increasing commitment to the geostrategic Central Asian region. During his tour, President Tusk made sure to touch on major EU policy cornerstones — environmental protection, water management, combatting climate change, trade and investment, strengthening regional economies, and fortifying regional security. However, with the EU contending with the influences of Russia and China in the region, President Tusk only briefly mentioned democracy building and human rights, giving priority to economic development and security cooperation in the region. With negotiations on EPCAs with the rest of Central Asia ongoing, President Tusk’s historic visit to Central Asia shows that the EU is committed to being an ongoing and permanent partner in the region.
 All prices converted from euros to USD and adjusted for inflation.