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18th Apr 2021

Steinmeier sketches new EU policy on Central Asia

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier used a Tuesday (23 January) meeting with MEPs to sketch out a new "Central Asia Initiative" to bundle together EU security and energy interests in the region for the first time in the EU's 50 year history.

"I'm now convinced more than ever we should formulate a European interest there," the German politician said after touring the region in late 2006. "We should take an initiative...to see if member states are prepared to make a first attempt at this under the German presidency."

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Mr Steinmeier, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, said EU energy interests take second place to the security agenda in Central Asia, which sees "instability" and "radical Islam" from Afghanistan and Pakistan "exported northward" to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

"We should simply check to see if we can help with stability in that region," Mr Steinmeier said. "It's a kind of gap in our European consciousness. As far as our common European past is concerned I can't see any stage where people were strongly interested in this region."

EU top diplomat Javier Solana's office, the European Commission and the German foreign ministry are all currently drafting separate proposals for a new EU Central Asia policy, with details of Brussels and Berlin's thinking to be discussed by EU states before June.

In a sneak peek into German thinking, Mr Steinmeier said education, research and cultural exchange programmes in the five states will be "top of the list" using financial instruments similar to but different from the EU's existing neighbourhood policy, which only covers countries west of the Caspian Sea.

The comments seem to rule out Kazakhstan's bid to join the neighbourhood policy, with Mr Steinmeier also suggesting there will be no new EU-led multilateral structures for Central Asia. "These countries are sufficiently far apart to make it difficult to talk about political cooperation in that region," he stated.

Pipelines under the surface

The minister mentioned EU energy interests in Central Asia in a general way only, citing Russian and Chinese presence in the gas and oil-rich region as one reason why the EU "shouldn't hold back" and said "we have to address more directly our mutual dependency on fossil-fuels outside the EU."

The EU is currently trying to broker new pipelines to the Caspian Sea basin to ship Kazakh, Turkmen and Uzbek gas and oil in a way that bypasses the increasingly unpredictable Russian export regime, but has faced NGO criticism for neglecting human rights issues in its energy drive.

US NGO Freedom House last week named Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan among the "worst dictatorships in the world," but Berlin keeps an army base in Uzbekistan and last year pushed to relax EU sanctions against the country, while German conservative MEP Daniel Caspary called for a fresh trade deal with Turkmenistan.

Steinmeier's Russia

MEPs also pressed Mr Steinmeier to say more on his attitude toward Russia amid widespread reports that the Kremlin is rolling back the democratic reforms of the 1990s and in the wake of the high-profile murders of opposition figures Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko last year.

"There is a certain trend toward [media] hysterics and one needs to get a sense of reason back into the debate," said the social-democrat SPD party member, who is closer to the realpolitik thinking of the SPD's ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder than the more Russia-critical CDU-chancellor Angela Merkel.

"We all know what the contradictions are in political decisions [on Russia]," Mr Steinmeier stated. "All I'm saying is that we as Europeans have an interest in keeping our relationship with Russia an active one - that means not just criticism but an active European policy."

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