The new EU strategy for Central Asia, adopted by the EU Council on 17 June is not really a strategy as it is not a plan of action that includes objectives or timelines. This is not a bad thing. The new EU strategy is a rich policy document that builds on the experience gathered over the past 12 years and which has benefitted from input from EU member states and Central Asian governments, as well as European and Central Asian civil societies. Most importantly, it is a flexible document that will guide European policy towards Central Asia over the coming decade. Surely the EU will not be able to address all the numerous political, economic, social and security issues listed in the strategy as Central Asia is not (and is unlikely to become) a priority for European foreign policy, but the document does indicate what the EU sees as important to pursue in relation to Central Asia.
The new strategy is written in a rather upbeat fashion and is much more positive than the initial 2007 strategy. Whereas the old strategy mostly saw challenges in terms of security and EU involvement, the new document sees opportunities in terms of cooperation and economic development. Also, the old strategy was much narrower than today’s more open-minded document. The earlier strategy had focused heavily on energy security as this was a European concern at the time, with Central Asia offering new energy import opportunities. The document was ill prepared to cope with the importance of Central Asia to European (and US) engagement in Afghanistan some years later and the worsening of relations with Russia. The current document seems less rigid in terms of specific topics (possibly except for connectivity, which could end up being just a buzzword that loses importance over time), and seems better prepared to assume new tasks and grasp opportunities, as stressed under its three main headers of “resilience”, “prosperity” and “working better together”.
Under the resilience priority the EU lays out its plans for the promotion of democracy; how to address security; and its environmental approach. After a trend in which the EU seemed to downplay democracy promotion in its external policies towards authoritarian (often oil-rich) countries, the new strategy’s approach is clear in stating ‘the EU will step up efforts to promote democracy’. Human rights are considered a basic element of relations while the strategy also introduces women’s empowerment and gender equality elements. The document also addresses human security and accountable security-sector governance. These two elements, which are intertwined with democracy, present a more enduring approach to promoting the security of average citizens than previous notions of ‘security and stability’ or geopolitical thinking. Instead of the geopolitics of energy security, this strategy considers issues such as renewable energy, environmental governance and ecological tourism as part and parcel of its resilience approach that should help strengthen Central Asian societies.
With regard to the prosperity priority the EU places economics, trade and connectivity under this header as well as youth and education. With regard to the latter, the focus is on higher education, including vocational training where there is a clear link with job creation. Whereas the EU seems to want to step up its educational support to the region, it is unfortunate that the emphasis is not stronger by, for instance, proposing bilateral educational programmes with Central Asian countries and also addressing basic education. Educational support does seem the way forward for the EU to have a deeper long-term impact in the region. Meanwhile, the heavy focus on economic development and trade has broadened from just EU-Central Asian trade and is now on the one hand embedded in the EU’s focus on connectivity with the whole of Asia through its designated new strategy on that specific matter and, on the other hand, through seeking ways to help spur local trade, for instance, through support for small and medium-sized businesses. In the latter case, there is a clear social-economic focus, for instance addressing the rural-urban divide which is a major problem in Central Asia: The countryside is becoming deserted due to labour migration to the cities and abroad, while the bigger cities of Central Asia cannot cope with offering sufficient housing, schools and healthcare.
The final priority is working better together where the EU outlines current and new cooperation mechanisms. One of these is the EU-Central Asia Forum, which took place for the first time in Bishkek on 6 July 2019 and brought together a range of civil society organisations and policymakers from Europe and Central Asia and was attended by the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini. Meanwhile, the document stresses the need for more EU member state involvement while being more flexible on regional cooperation with Central Asia in welcoming Eastern Partnership countries and Afghanistan to new initiatives. This will hopefully result in more creative regional cooperation with countries that are genuinely interested.
The strategy is largely silent on the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, not portraying it as a partner or competitor in Central Asia, while Russia is not even mentioned (and the Eurasian Economic Union only in a footnote). Regarding the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the Russian-driven Collective Security Treaty Organisation the document only states it will ‘continue monitoring developments’. Clearly the document stays away from competition with Russia or China or ‘New Great Game thinking’ just as it also does not offer hollow language on cooperation with Russia and China in Central Asia.
Under this new guiding document, the EU has its work cut out. One of the main priorities will be how closely to integrate the strategy’s implementation with the upcoming Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) that will replace a host of regional and thematic funding instruments that the EU has used around the world. While the EU’s new funding instrument (as part of the 2021-27 EU financial framework) will probably offer greater flexibility to address new issues as well as adapt funding to changing interests and circumstances in Central Asia and elsewhere, there is a risk that transparency in terms of funding dedicated to projects and programmes be weakened due to that same flexibility that it seeks to offer. The EU has created a positive momentum through its inclusive process of debating and drafting a new strategy. Now it will need to try and keep that momentum going by implementing the many facets of the strategy.
 ‘Connecting Europe and Asia - Building blocks for an EU Strategy’, European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Brussels, 9 September 2018. For further analysis see: Jos Boonstra (ed.), ‘How “central” is Central Asia in the EU-Asia connectivity strategy?’, EUCAM Watch, No. 20, January 2019.
 European Commission, ‘EU Budget for the Future’, 14 June 2018.
Part of this text is derived from: Jos Boonstra, ‘Enough to do for the EU in Central Asia’, editorial in ‘New EU Strategy for Central Asia: First reactions’, EUCAM Watch, No. 21, June 2019.