On 27 and 28 March 2007, in the Kazakh capital Astana, the European Union Troika met at foreign minister level with the Central Asian states for a regional dialogue, thus entering a new era of EU-Central Asia relations.
The German EU Council Presidency has been tasked by its European partners to draw up guidelines for enhanced cooperation with the Central Asian states ("EU Strategy on Central Asia") by the middle of this year.
The EU delegation was headed by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The EU External Relations and Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and the EU Special Representative for Central Asia, Pierre Morel, also took part in the Troika consultations. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were represented by their foreign ministers, while Turkmenistan sent its Deputy Foreign Minister.
All conference participants emphasized their shared intention to make regular meetings at foreign minister level an integral part of an intensified political dialogue. Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier said, "The time is ripe for a comprehensive partnership". Dr Steinmeier called the Astana meeting a "solid, positive basis for future EU-Central Asia cooperation".
The EU has a great interest in peaceful, democratic and prosperous countries in Central Asia and is willing to actively support the region's progress towards this goal. Dr Steinmeier underlined the EU's wish to "shape this dialogue transparently" and emphasized five key areas of enhanced cooperation, including an intensified dialogue on the rule of law and the promotion of democracy. In this regard the EU is also interested in entering into a bilateral, regular and structured dialogue with each of the Central Asian states on human rights. According to Dr Steinmeier the partners gave "priority" to an EU education initiative which will concentrate both on schooling and vocational training, as well as on increased academic cooperation and student exchange. Dr Steinmeier announced a regular energy dialogue with Central Asia as an important element of cooperation. The Kazakh foreign minister, Tashin, welcomed this policy, saying, "We are in favour of an energy dialogue." The diversification of energy sources, energy-producing countries and transit routes is the EU's declared policy.
The EU can also pass on a wealth of experience in regional cooperation. The participants mentioned in this regard the themes of regional security, the fight against international terrorism, border management and environmental and resource management.
The Central Asian states are key partners in the stabilization of Afghanistan and can provide crucial support for the international efforts to bring about lasting peace in that country, combat the transit of drugs and contain religious extremism.
At the subsequent press conference EU Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner underlined the fact that the Central Asian states, as "neighbours of the EU's neighbours", were moving ever closer, and that the EU would underpin its Strategy on Central Asia in the identified areas by markedly increasing its financial commitment, to around 750 million euro for the period 2007-2013.
The EU Special Representative, Morel, emphasized the long-term nature of the European approach: The declared intention of the subsequent Portuguese, Slovenian and French Presidencies to continue the initiative was, he said, a "good starting point" for the planned comprehensive cooperation.
The EU foreign ministers will discuss the Strategy on Central Asia in detail, on the basis of a first draft, during their meeting in Brussels on 23 April. The EU's intention is to finalize the strategy by the time of the foreign ministers meeting in June and to adopt it at the European Council of Heads of State and Government on 21 and 22 June.
The planned Strategy on Central Asia is part and parcel of the EU's efforts to systematically further develop its relations with the countries participating in the European Neighbourhood Policy, with Russia, and with the Central Asian states. In this connection the Central Asian states have voiced their express wish for more intensive relations with the EU.