European Union is well underway to build a stronger, broader, more modern partnership with the five countries of Central Asia
Op-ed by Josep Borrell, The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission.
For centuries, connections between Europe and Central Asia have played a profoundly important role in shaping our societies. This was true long before trade flourished in the ancient world along the Silk Road, linking the civilisations of Europe and Asia, spreading wealth, culture, and mutual learning.
But connections require constant attention and in recent times we have perhaps neglected to nurture the links between our two regions. The EU is determined, together with our Central Asian partners, to correct this. Earlier this month, the President of the European Council Charles Michel visited the region, to strengthen our cooperation. And later this month I will open the EU-Central Asia Connectivity Conference: Global Gateway hosted by Uzbekistan on 18 November 2022 in Samarkand.
We live in a time of growing geopolitical challenges and a rise in power politics. We also face two mega trends: climate change and the digitalisation of our economies and societies. This is why accelerating the green transition and shaping the digital economy are at the heart of the EU’s policy agenda, our foreign policy. With our Global Gateway, the EU is promoting the green and digital transition at the global level. Everything we do is based on meeting the needs of partner countries and ensuring benefits for local communities.
We know that our partners in Central Asia see the same challenges as we do: building back our economies after the pandemic, addressing the energy and climate crises, and handling the disruption caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But these challenges are also opportunities, to invest in a more sustainable and connected global economy.
In Samarkand, we will explore three themes: digital connectivity, transport connectivity, and energy connectivity. In all three areas, we will look for ways to cooperate more closely, identifying investment opportunities and highlighting reforms that can act as a catalyst for building closer connections. We will bring together politicians and technical experts, International Financial Institutions, and – crucially – members of the business community and representatives of civil society. By building connections among people, we will enable connections between regions.
In the digital field, we will look for opportunities to build secure platforms, overcome geographical obstacles, improve public service delivery and support education and job creation.
We will also look at ways to strengthen sustainable transport connections within Central Asia and between Central Asia and Europe, to boost economic diversification and green growth.
We are all conscious of the dramatic effects of climate change and water scarcity To meet the growing demand for green energy, we will explore options for improving our access to low-carbon energy generation. We certainly have a shared interest in boosting agricultural and industrial production in ways that lead to better water and waste management.
Our vision of connectivity between Europe and Central Asia is set against the backdrop of our EU Strategy on Central Asia. We are well underway to build a stronger, broader, more modern partnership with the five countries of Central Asia.
And our political commitment is backed by concrete assistance. The European Union (EU institutions plus EU member states) is the number one donor in Central Asia, with €1.1 billion of European assistance for the region in the period 2014-2020. For the coming four years, the estimated total grant funding to Central Asia for 2021-24, should amount at least to €390 million, covering both bilateral and regional programmes. This includes two regional, so-called ‘Team Europe’ Initiatives: one on Digital Connectivity and the other on Water, Energy and Climate, which the EU will launch officially in Samarkand. Team Europe is the brand we use for projects where EU Institutions, member states and finance institutions all work together.
The EU vision of connectivity is an inclusive one. We are not looking to supplant other partnerships. And we are certainly not interested in creating new dependencies.
In the EU, we are building up our ‘open strategic autonomy’. This is essentially about upholding the freedom to make our own strategic choices, avoiding excessive dependences and having alternatives, all within a global system built on international law, sound rules, and international standards. Naturally, we understand the wish of our partners to likewise build their autonomy and their freedom of choice.
We are well-placed to make an attractive offer to our partners. The European Union is the world’s largest investor. European companies deliver more Foreign Direct Investment than anyone else, including in Central Asia. By leveraging the investment power of the European private sector, we can help build a new, green digital economy in Central Asia, one that is deeply connected to the wider world.
Our task in Samarkand is to stimulate that investment by identifying and delivering the reforms and opportunities to draw business in. Central Asian economies are vibrant and growing. They hold enormous potential. In a world of geopolitical turbulence and change, the EU is a reliable partner. That is why I am looking forward to seeing Europe play its part in ensuring the success of this vital region.
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