Modest but consistent: EU policymaking towards Central Asia

Jos Boonstra is Senior researcher & EUCAM coordinator, Centre for European Security Studies (CESS), The Netherlands

The European Union (EU) is a relatively new actor engaging with new states in Central Asia. Its engagement is modest but consistent. Because of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Brussels seeks to become more strategic in its political, economic and security engagement. The EU is, however, unlikely to step away from soft power engagement or emphasising human rights. These and related matters are often discussed through the lenses of ‘what’ questions: What the EU seeks to achieve in Central Asia, or what Central Asian states’ interests are in engaging with the EU. In contrast, this paper examines the EU’s Central Asia policy through ‘why’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ questions, namely ‘why’ the EU engages with Central Asia, ‘who’ are the drivers of the EU’s Central Asia policy and ‘how’ this engagement comes about. 


The European Union’s ambitions are high, while its actual engagement with the region remains modest. European interests are centred on trade, stability, human rights, and development cooperation. 

Talking to neighbours of neighbours 

The EU became a foreign policy actor in the nineties and especially the 2000s, mainly against the backdrop of the war in former Yugoslavia.  After the 2004 and 2007 enlargements and getting actively involved in peacebuilding and promoting its integration and regional cooperation narrative in South East Europe, the EU also started to look further afield. It developed developed cooperation programmes with North Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, including the South Caucasus, bringing all together in 2004 in the European Neighbourhood Policy. 

Whereas the Eastern Partnership (EaP), launched in 2009, was built on a vast basis of engagement, the 2007 EU Strategy for Central Asia can be considered a start of cooperation with the region of Central Asia (bilateral ties already existed).

Because the Central Asian region is located in-between China and Russia and has few ties with the Caucasus, Europe started pitching Central Asia as ‘the neighbours of the neighbours’. The EU sees Central Asia still in the framework of ‘former Soviet republics’ and as an extension of Europe. This is why foreign ministries (and think tanks) often coin the term ‘Europe and Central Asia’, recognising that Central Asia is not Europe geographically but an extension of Europe due to its Soviet past.

European interests

European interests in Central Asia are minor compared to other regions. Nonetheless, the EU as an institution is a formidable actor on behalf of Europe in Central Asia. In many areas, European foreign policies still rely on past colonial ties. Thus, Spain and Portugal actively shape EU policy towards Latin America, while France is a driver of approaches to North Africa and the Sahel. Because there is no European colonial past with Central Asia, no member state feels responsible for an approach on Central Asia-related matters. As a result, EU member states leave European policy towards Central Asia with the institutions. The exception is Kazakhstan, which hosts embassies from most EU member states, primarily reflecting trade interests.

At the time of the EU strategy development in 2007, energy security was a key driver to engage with Central Asia. Russia was nationalising its energy sector, curtailing European and American energy companies and using pipelines as a weapon to pressure European neighbours. When large-scale energy connections over land and via the Caspian Sea were deemed non-viable, attention shifted to security as the EU sought to step up ties with Central Asia while NATO withdrew from Afghanistan. Soon after, the security focus was replaced by a trade and transit focus as the EU sought to respond to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Thus, the EU developed the ‘Connecting Europe and Asia’ strategy in 2018. The 2019 EU strategy for Central Asia sought to bring over a decade of shifts of interest together in an updated document by highlighting ‘resilience’ (including values and security), ‘prosperity’ (including energy and environment) and the mantra of ‘regional cooperation’ that the EU continues to promote. [continue reading]

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