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New agenda for EU-Central Asia relations

Speech by High representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini at the European Parliament plenary session on the new agenda for EU-Central Asia relations.

“Mr President, last summer, the Council of the European Union asked me and the Commission to propose a new EU strategy on Central Asia, to be adopted next year.

As you might know, a few months ago, during my second visit to the region, I visited three of the five Central Asian countries. I was in Samarkand, where we had a very positive EU-Central Asia ministerial meeting. We have that ministerial meeting every year, which proves to be extremely useful and I am glad for the European Parliament’s continuous contribution to our work and also for your efforts to put this issue on the agenda, where it should be.

Central Asia is often perceived as a remote part of the world, but in fact, Europe and the five Central Asian countries are now closer than ever. I believe this is more important now than before. Their neighbourhood is our neighbourhood.

The Silk Road is not only a literary memory of the past, but one of the most important global infrastructure projects. Central Asia is, even more than in the past, a crossroads between Europe and the Far East, between Russia and South East Asia. Events in Afghanistan or in the Middle East are as important for us as for our partners in Central Asia. Their security is clearly also our security.

We see clearly that, as the world is changing, this region is changing, too. Free elections and peaceful transitions of power are becoming a more regular feature. Central Asia has become more independent and stronger, a partner for the East and for the West, not the chessboard for some great game among empires. Today, Central Asian countries are seeking a closer partnership with the European Union.

This is the clear message I got from all the leaders and ministers I have met from the region, especially in the last year: they are eager to deepen and increase cooperation with the European Union in all the different sectors. I believe this is a political will and the political signal we should get. They see us, the European Union, as a reliable, predictable, cooperative power with no hidden geopolitical agenda. And they see us as an indispensable partner for sustainable development and for modernisation.

I would like to focus on three aspects of our relationship where we have already achieved a lot and where I see a lot of potential for greater progress.

First, we are partners for change. For instance, we have supported Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan on their way to joining the World Trade Organisation, and we want to do the same for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. European companies are keen to invest in the region, to the benefit of both the European Union and Central Asia, and improving the business environment is an interest we share. Also, to this end, we have launched a new generation of enhanced partnership and cooperation agreements. We signed one with Kazakhstan, we are negotiating one with Kyrgyzstan, and we look forward to opening negotiations soon with Uzbekistan. These agreements are also an incentive for domestic reforms, in line with international values, norms and standards, so I hope that the European Parliament will soon give its consent to the ratification of our Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Turkmenistan.

When we talk about change, it is not just about business. I want to be very clear on this. It is, first and foremost, about expanding rights all around the region for the sake of the people of Central Asia. With independent media and an open space for civil society, institutions in Central Asia will be more credible, states will be more resilient in times of crisis, and economists would be more solid and attractive. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are engaged in important reform processes. We want to accompany them on this path. This is what I discussed during my visit last December, if I am not mistaken, to both countries and we want to work for that example to be followed by others in the region.

Second, we are partners for regional cooperation. Central Asia remains one of the least integrated regions in the world. In Samarkand I saw great interest in our European experience on how to solve common problems through regional cooperation. Central Asia faces many challenges that no single country can address alone, from water scarcity to the fight against international trafficking, from trade to the issue of foreign terrorist fighters and the radicalisation of, especially, the younger generations.

When it comes to intercontinental trade routes, Central Asian countries want to be more than just transit countries. They hope that these big infrastructure projects will bring sustainable development to their countries and support trade within the region, not only through the region. These are demands we can only support. It is also for this reason that I intend to present to the October Foreign Affairs Council a new strategy on connecting Europe to Asia. It will highlight the key principles which we believe should guide international work to promote connectivity. This new strategy will aim to give our partners, including Central Asian countries, more than one choice. It should help them avoid the debt trap and the trap of poor-quality projects.

Last, but not least, the third sector of cooperation. The European Union and Central Asia are partners for security. We have a shared interest in supporting, for instance, an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. Uzbekistan will co-host a regional conference on Afghanistan at the end of March, in a few weeks from now. This is essential for our own security, and I will be there, personally, with the Afghan Government, with our Central Asian partners and with all our international interlocutors. International cooperation is the only way to tackle challenges that are cross-border by definition, such as radicalisation or the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters.

We cooperate on border management with Central Asian countries and we have recently decided to deploy an EU counter-terrorism expert to Central Asia, who will be based in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. We will also participate in the high-level regional conference on counter-terrorism which Tajikistan will be hosting in early May.

It is quite clear, also from the debates we have had previously, that we live in a world that is moving fast but not always in the right direction, which is quite dangerous and challenging. We are probably living in the most delicate moment since the end of the Cold War and there is very little space for positive news.

Still, when I travel to a region like Central Asia I see more opportunities to take than threats to tackle: opportunities for change, for democratic perspectives, for economic growth and for cooperation on the different sectors I have mentioned now. This will be the core of our work, and our new strategy that the Council asked for, and the European Parliament has an important role to play in this process.

So let us invest together in this partnership because security and development in Central Asia is also our own security and development.”

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