The European Council is currently working on a revised EU strategy for Central Asia - which should be launched by 2019 - redefining its policy towards the region following the developments that changed its geopolitical landscape in the last decade. The EU’s revised Central Asia strategy should be based on a realistic and coherent approach aiming to achieve not only “realpolitik” goals (energy diversification and regional security) but also to promote a greater commitment in the fields of education, healthcare, borders and civil society (the so-called soft policy agenda).
As the EU Special Representative for Central Asia, Ambassador Peter Burian, stressed during a meeting at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in November 2017 "(through) the revised strategy towards Central Asia the EU will work to promote shared values in an effective way".
When the strategy for a new partnership with Central Asia was launched in 2007, the European Commission intended to promote its interests in the region through greater political cooperation: for the first time the achievement of general political aims was closely linked to the realization and development of a potential process of change in the region. Originally the strategy was conceived as the combination of a bilateral and regional dimension of cooperation. If bilateral dialogue was aimed at meeting the national needs of the Central Asian republics by means of tailored policies and initiatives, the regional cooperation approach - aimed at managing transnational issues and challenges such as drug trafficking, water management, security - was severely limited by the traditional mistrust and deep-rooted rivalries that have influenced relations among Central Asian republics.
However, the European Union was unable to exert concrete influence in the region, encountering a number of hindrances and difficulties that have contained its geopolitical ambitions and the achievement of long-term goals.
Firstly, the EU initiatives to promote democratisation, rule of law, good governance and human rights protection were perceived by some Central Asian political leaderships as destabilizing threats to their power.
Secondly, the EU still cannot compete with Russia and China in geopolitical terms, due to its soft security approach and economic weakness compared to both these actors, who envisage massive investments in the region to implement their projects of economic integration.
Furthermore, the revised EU strategy will act in a reshaped regional scenario, extremely different from 2007 when the former strategy for a new partnership with Central Asia was elaborated. As a matter of fact, Russia and China have lately undertaken ambitious geopolitical strategies in the region. In 2015 Russia launched the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) including Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (and perhaps Tajikistan as a potential next member) in a Moscow-led common economic space. Kazakhstan is one of the founding members of the EEU, but it is also the main economic and trade partner for the EU in Central Asia: in 2015 Kazakhstan signed an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU which underlines their upgraded relations and the "special partner" role of this Central Asia country.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative has allowed Central Asian states to benefit from massive economic investments in developing infrastructures in order to enhance their transit role between China and EU markets. All five Central Asian republics are currently involved in inclusive strategic partnerships with Beijing, which could have greater influence on their foreign policy orientations.
Furthermore, the new political course Uzbekistan is following presents an attractive challenge for EU initiatives to promote enhanced dialogue in the region: ten years ago the EU discussed whether or not to withdraw sanctions against the Tashkent government, while at present Uzbekistan is promoting an interesting regional policy aimed at expanding cooperation with neighbouring countries in order to manage and solve traditional regional disputes such as border demarcation and water management.
Following the recent developments in the energy field, the EU might have the opportunity to increase its influence in Central Asia relying on the need of Caspian hydrocarbon producers to find alternative routes of exports, currently oriented towards China. In December 2017 Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov announced that all five Caspian littoral countries had agreed to sign a draft document on the Caspian’s legal status. Consequently, the possibility of building the Trans Caspian pipeline - the offshore corridor delivering natural gas from Turkmenistan (and perhaps Kazakhstan) to Azerbaijan and then to EU markets - would appear concrete, implementing the Southern Gas Corridor which will help the EU to enhance its energy security through a strategy of diversifying import routes.
Turkmenistan's engagement remains one of the main challenges for the EU’s revised strategy: the Partnership Cooperation Agreement is still pending but the EU Commission should find a way to follow a step-by step policy aimed at progressively involving Turkmenistan in a framework of cooperation with the EU without compromising on issues like promoting good governance and human rights protection.
In the field of security, the persistent instability in Afghanistan and the return of Central Asian foreign fighters after the Islamic State's defeat in Syria and Iraq pose serious threats to regional security and domestic stability: considering that EU is not able to play a role of hard security provider, its traditional soft-security approach could be useful in managing unsolved endogenous problems (authoritarianism, poverty, corruption) which fuel social discontent and domestic instability, promoting dialogue and inclusive policies.