The EU is expected to approve a new strategy for engaging with countries in Central Asia this year. Ann Sander Nielsen writes that in developing the new strategy, the EU must avoid compromising its founding values under the guise of ‘principled pragmatism’.

During the first part of this year, the European Union will adopt a new strategy for its engagement in Central Asia. This will replace the EU’s strategy for a ‘new partnership’ with Central Asian countries that it developed in 2007, which laid out the Union’s commitment to regional and bilateral cooperation with Central Asia and its five republics, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

In reviewing its foreign policy towards the region, it is crucial that the EU continues to prioritise its founding values without hiding behind excuses of “principled pragmatism” – a term the EU uses in its 2016 Global Strategy to frame its viewpoint that interests and values in foreign policy are two sides of the same coin. Instead, the EU should keep Central Asian governments accountable to their international obligations.

A transformed international environment

Only a few centuries ago, Central Asia was centre stage in the great power struggles between the Russian Empire and the British. Today, Central Asia once again draws the attention of global powers due to its strategic geographic location and its vast energy resources.

Since the adoption of the EU’s 2007 strategy, the mood of optimism about the international liberal order has dropped dramatically, and the EU finds itself increasingly alone in the world as an international promoter of democracy and human rights.

Federica Mogherini during a visit to Kyrgyzstan in 2017, Credit: EEAS (CC BY-NC 2.0)

For once, with Trump in the White House, the future of US engagement in the region is uncertain. The US has withdrawn most of its troops from Afghanistan, reducing the need for logistical cooperation with Central Asian states. In 2015, the US launched the US-Central Asia C5+1 platform for dialogue with Central Asian states focusing on projects in areas of common interest – primarily within the fields of security, trade and the environment and with limited reference to the importance of the rule of law and human rights.

With the US focusing on “harder” matters, the past decade has seen Russia and China consolidating their roles in the region, downsizing the values-based agenda of human rights and rule of law promotion. Russia has sought to retain its influence in the region by introducing regional integration arrangements such as the Eurasian Economic Union. However, Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Ukraine crisis and its involvement in the Syrian civil war has raised concerns among Central Asian governments and has contributed to increased rivalry between Russia and the West.

At the same time, the rise of China is challenging the role of Russia as the main economic actor in the region. China has launched its Belt and Road Initiative which runs across Central Asia, allowing Central Asian republics to benefit from economic investments in infrastructure while providing new economic prospects for Central Asia to act as a transit hub between China and the EU.

Low ambitions?

Despite its desire to be seen as a normative actor in the world, the 2007 EU Strategy for Central Asia combined hard and soft priorities. Apart from human rights, civil society and maintaining the rule of law, other interests were also reflected in the 2007 strategy. These interests included linking Turkmenistan to the Southern Corridor as well as fostering security in the extended region, particularly Afghanistan.

One of the main objectives of the 2007 EU Strategy was to foster regular political dialogue as well as enhanced cooperation on the rule of law, education, environment and water, combining bilateral as well as regional cooperation with Central Asia.

The 2007 EU Strategy for Central Asia was last reviewed in 2015 by the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. It noted that the EU’s approach in Central Asia had had only limited success, with the main beneficiaries of EU development funds, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, continuing to suffer from severe brain drain, corruption and nepotism.

More generally, the EU has lacked visibility in the region. Instability in Europe’s neighbourhood and the migration crisis has contributed to an internal European consensus that the EU should pay more attention to its immediate neighbourhood and the main countries of origin for refugees and migrants to the EU. Against this background, the EU’s interest in Central Asia has dampened.

EU priorities for the future

The 2016 EU Global Strategy reflected a departure from the idealistic wording of the previous 2003 strategy. With the notion of “principled pragmatism,” the EU Global Strategy laid out its agenda of intertwined values and interests, as security, prosperity, democracy and a rules-based global order.

The Global Strategy’s main keyword is resilience. The term has at its core pragmatism and flexibility with an emphasis on a bottom-up approach, focusing on individuals, communities and societies. As phrased in the Global Strategy, “positive change can only be home-grown, and may take years to materialise.” Resilience thus represents a departure from top-down democracy promotion at the same time as it avoids too much emphasis on stability, which runs the risk of the EU being associated with a policy of tacit support for authoritarian governments.

Despite its relatively limited engagement, the EU has a lot to offer when it comes to promoting long-term sustainable development in Central Asia. The Council Conclusions of June 2017 revealed that the European Commission plans to streamline its regional development assistance to Central Asia under two broad headlines, namely sustainable growth/jobs and security/stability, stressing the need for increasing the resilience of the region and of individual states. This focus thereby also departs from the rhetoric of the previous strategy which emphasised human rights and democracy-building.

In the field of trade and investments, the EU plays a relatively modest role in Central Asia (aside from Kazakhstan), compared to China and Russia. However, as a response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the European Commission has proposed to improve connections between Europe and Asia.

In contrast to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the EU seeks a market-based approach which emphasises common cross-border rules, standards and regulations to ensure fair competition for businesses. The initiative, which has yet to be approved by the European Parliament and Council, thus stresses the EU’s view that there is a correlation between rule of law, good governance and an improved business climate – the very core of “principled pragmatism.”

Risks and rewards

Although the EU’s role in post-Soviet Central Asia remains limited, the EU is an important external actor in the region. Nevertheless, the EU continues to exert only limited influence compared to Russia and China while presenting itself as a benevolent actor with no ambition to become a great power in the region.

As disinterest in normative values among external actors active in the region contributes to a worsening international human rights climate, the EU should not lose sight of its founding values. The EU should emphasise the areas in which it can offer a unique advantage – and where Central Asian republics are keen to draw on European knowledge. At the same time, the EU must remain realistic as to what it can achieve. By relying too much on “principled pragmatism,” the EU could risk strengthening authoritarian regimes through resilience-building policies, leaving itself open to accusations of hypocrisy.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Ann Sander Nielsen
Ann Sander Nielsen is currently based at Tehran University. She holds an MSc from the London School of Economics in International Relations.

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