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IEP Lunch Debate with H.E. Ambassador Peter Burian

H.E. Peter Burian, EU Special Repre­sen­tative for Central Asia, gave a speech on the topic of “Prospects of EU-Central Asia Relations” during an IEP public event at the Repre­sen­tation of the European Commission in Berlin on 4 July 2017. Intro­ductory remarks were given by Patrick Lobis, Foreign and Economic Affairs official of the European Commission in Germany, and Prof. Dr. Mathias Jopp, Director of the Institute for European Politics.

Ambas­sador Burian’s speech and the subse­quent discussion mainly addressed three aspects of EU-Central Asia relations: the strategic impor­tance of Central Asia for the EU, recent devel­op­ments and challenges that the region is facing, and elements of the EU’s engagement.

It was noted that the region has a specific strategic impor­tance for the EU in terms of a gateway between Europe and Asia. The EU is thereby aware of its commitment to security, stability and sustainable devel­opment, but also of the signif­icant potential of a young and growing market for trade and investment. Due to the fact that the EU today has a better under­standing of the challenges that the countries are facing, it can increas­ingly become more engaged in the region. The current devel­opment of Central Asia is influ­enced by various problems, especially those of weakened economies and increasing inequality, caused by low global prices of oil and natural gas; the increasing presence of ISIS in the north of Afghanistan, with specific risk for the security situation; the growing impact of climate change; and a lack of democ­ra­ti­zation in some countries. The smooth power transition in Uzbek­istan was mentioned as a factor which might influence the region’s stability in a positive way, and which could lead to strengthened cooper­ation with the EU.

The EU would need to convince Central Asian govern­ments for facil­i­tating dialogue with the civil society, in order to provide more space for freedom of expression, build more open societies and economies, and implement the initiated reforms. To that end, the EU has estab­lished a well-struc­tured archi­tecture for bilateral and regional dialogue in the past ten years since Germany under its EU Presi­dency initiated the first EU Strategy for Central Asia. The partners see the EU as a balancing power in the region, and as a source of technology and investment, which is considered a necessity for the modern­ization and diver­si­fi­cation of their economies. In turn, demanded presence of the EU in the region on behalf of the partners gives the EU certain leverage in shaping trans­for­mation processes (rule of law, good gover­nance, and human rights).

Mr. Burian empha­sized that the EU wants to remain a relevant player in Central Asia. To preserve its influence, the EU needs to refocus on mecha­nisms of cooper­ation, reacting to new tendencies and situa­tions on the ground, such as the increasing political influence of Russia or the economic dominance of China and other players in the region, notably Iran and Turkey. He suggested, the EU should be following a soft policy agenda in terms of promoting education, economic growth, good gover­nance and border management. Increased demands for more invest­ments, advanced technologies, trade, and economic cooper­ation should not be neglected. He mentioned in this connection, prepa­ra­tions for a new programme supporting the devel­opment of the private sector. In general, Mr. Burian endorses the promotion of greater involvement of the European Investment Bank in the region, especially by supporting green economy and improving business and investment climate for European companies. Connec­tivity is also seen as an important factor for devel­oping the region of Central Asia. Therefore, win-win collab­o­ra­tions should be achieved. Furthermore, the EU is open to cooper­ation with all players in the region; however, not as a subcon­tractor of China or anyone else.

Mr. Burian further noted that to ensure better visibility, the EU should enhance its strategic commu­ni­cation in the region. Indeed, the EU consti­tutes the biggest donor in the region, but citizens or even govern­ments do not possess the full knowledge about the actions of the EU and the amount of money it invests. For this reason, the EU needs to develop a new effective commu­ni­cation strategy to promote its goals and messages in a better way. That said, a natural compe­tition for integration does indeed exist, yet the EU does not take part in any rivalry for political influence.

In the ensuing lively discussion with the audience, the demographic, geopo­litical and infra­struc­tural devel­opment of the region was also discussed, for example with regard to the influence of China in Central Asia. Mr. Burian indicated that he does not see a major influx of migrants from Central Asia into the EU. The focus, in his eyes, lies on the creation of working oppor­tu­nities and the expansion of digital connec­tivity in the region. China and India are therefore seen as important cooper­ation partners in various areas of regional development.

Author: Paul Leon Wagner