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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Getting the EU Back Into Eurasia

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German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier appears to be serious about carrying out his nation's plans to reorient European foreign policy toward Central Asia. This recalibration is a welcome shift from Germany, which under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder tended toward almost pusillanimous relations with Russia, to the detriment of other former Soviet states. Chancellor Angela Merkel's new Ostpolitik will continue to remain balanced carefully against national energy interests, but it seems that she is capitalizing on the fact that Germany holds the rotating presidencies of both the Group of Eight and the European Union to try to focus European (and world) attention on Russia's other, often unseen flank in Central Asia and the Black Sea region.

The factors behind this adjustment are not only woolly issues of governance but hard political and economic realities, something that is reflected in an early draft of the action plan that the German presidency has prepared for Europe in Central Asia. While there is a concentration on energy issues, it is carefully blended with attention to issues like poverty eradication, the introduction of accounting standards and infrastructure investment.

It is the presence of energy as an issue, however, that is one of the critical defining factors in this reinvigorated European interest, and that offers some assurance that this may be a genuine approach. While there are no easy solutions to Europe's dependency on energy (or that of the West in general), there are two fundamental things Europe can be do to re-craft the status quo: diversify and find alternative routes.

The‑first of these is increasingly a given for European governments and is feeding current complex political debates around the globe. The second, however, is often not rigorously addressed within the European Union.

Currently, the EU is reliant for almost half of its energy resources (a figure it has estimated will increase to 70 percent by 2030) on two unreliable routes from Russia, through Belarus and Ukraine. While it is looking at opening new routes, such as the Odessa-Brody pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Poland or the Nord Stream pipeline running directly from Russia into Germany along the bottom of the Baltic Sea, it has seemingly ignored the potential importance in diversifying its sources of supply by not looking toward concentrating more on Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Among European states, Germany stands out as particularly well-placed to drive this issue forward, both as a result of close ties with Russia, Europe's main energy supplier, and the fact that it is the only member state with embassies in all the Black Sea and Central Asian countries. Merkel reflected her particular interest in her first speech to the European Parliament, declaring that she hoped "especially to develop a neighborhood policy for the Black Sea region and Central Asia."

The current draft proposals -- which will be formally concluded and published by the EU at a summit June 20 -- offered by her presidency seem to be the beginnings of a fulfillment of this promise. But a number of issues mandate closer attention.

While it appears that EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has opened the door to possible EU involvement in Abkhazia, greater European engagement in the region's frozen conflicts is something that is both a moral obligation, and a part of a wider strategy to block porous borders that currently facilitate the trafficking of arms, drugs and humans to Europe. Afghanistan's poppies only become Europe's heroin problem after passing through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Furthermore, as Steinmeier has suggested, the EU must support the so-far successful effort by Central Asian countries to contain Islamist extremism and help temper some possibly draconian responses. Plus, a more assertive and effective role for the EU in its neighborhood would give its common foreign and security policy a much-needed shot of international legitimacy.

The countries of the Black Sea and Central Asia have sent clear signals that they are interested in engagement and partnership with the EU. Moldova has consistently pleaded for an EU role in resolving the crisis over the self-proclaimed Transdnestr republic. The leaders of the region's key energy suppliers, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, have long conducted clear, multivectored foreign policies that would welcome a deeper EU partnership.

While engagement with the region is based on issues of clear national interest to member states -- and the EU may in fact want to keep relations well below anything approaching the membership level to which Georgia aspires -- the EU can play a unique role in offering a distinctly new model of engagement in the region that will break away from the somewhat discredited U.S. "democracy agenda," sidestep historical concerns over NATO's military implications, and keep these states within the Western sphere of influence.

So far, it appears that the EU's German-driven plan for Central Asia is moving in a positive direction. An emphasis on energy, mixed with infrastructure investment, some basic poverty alleviation and a drive to increase the European Union's physical profile in the region is a sensible approach. Attention must, however, be paid to assure that these promises are carried through and that relations stay on this positive note. The alternative, illustrated by EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, is that they "slip back to other partners" and the EU loses an opportunity to build institutions and economic and security partners.

In order to ensure that this agenda stays focused, the EU should push the following concrete, proactive policy issues. First, it should throw its full diplomatic support behind the development of trans-Caspian oil and gas pipelines, to connect resources from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and potentially Uzbekistan with the current alternative pipelines from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean. Second, the EU is well placed to steward a formal process of mediation for the frozen conflicts in Moldova and Georgia (both have already asked for EU intervention and support). Third, while the broad strokes of diplomatic expansion in the region are an excellent sign, the German presidency should continue its efforts to enshrine the EU's economic and political links with the region's rising power, Kazakhstan.

It remains to be seen what is in the German presidency's final draft report on Central Asia, but the positive signs are all in place. Of the international players in Europe and Asia, the EU is best placed to contribute to stability, good governance and mutual understanding among these countries that, although not all neighbors, are still in the neighborhood. The EU finds before it a historic opportunity to present a middle way for the countries of the Black Sea and Central Asia, while at the same time protecting its vital economic and security interests.

Raffaello Pantucci is a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Alexandros Petersen is London vice president of the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.