It’s curious that the EU’s initiative “Connecting Europe and Asia” makes no mention of two of its most important players – the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Chinese “Belt and Road” Initiative, writes Yuri Kofner.
Yuri Kofner is the head of Eurasian sector, Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies, Russia.
In September 2018, the European External Action Service (EEAS) presented a strategy concept on the EU’s stance towards growing integration and connectivity in the wider Eurasian space. The policy paper is called “Joint Communication: Connecting Europe and Asia – Building blocks for an EU Strategy” .
This concept paper has several pros and cons. Among the aspects that should be lauded are:
Firstly, now the EU finally has a common guideline, at least on paper, on how to deal with the emerging nexus of transport corridors and economic integration projects in Greater Eurasia. Currently, each EU member state still individually promotes its own agenda on cooperation with the East.
This leads to a dissonance where some countries, such as Austria, actively seek cooperation with its Eastern partners, whilst others, such as Poland, strictly oppose this. A joint action could bring more added value and weight to national and business initiatives.
Secondly, the three principles of cooperation that are proposed in this strategy document are of universal value and thus might indeed be implemented by other players in the continent:
Comprehensive: It is good, that the term “connectivity”, as described in this memorandum, includes not only transport & logistics but also three other aspects that indeed all should go hand in hand: energy, digital and human (education, labour, migration) cooperation.
Sustainable: Cooperation in the four above mentioned fields should be conducted in regards to the environment and future generations.
Common rules and standards: International cooperation on “connectivity” should not only focus on so-called “hard” infrastructure, i.e. investments in road, railways, ports, logistics hubs, fiber optic cables, etc. Creating a “soft” infrastructure framework in the wider Eurasian space is equally important.
This includes, among other: facilitation of customs procedures, harmonization of shipping documents, harmonization of technical regulation systems, investment transparency standards, digitalization, “single windows”, etc. The EU is a leader in creating progressive people and business-oriented regulation, which could form the model for a common “soft” infrastructure framework in the rest of Eurasia.
However, there are other parts of the EU’s concept strategy that would need further elaboration.
Firstly, the paper is quite vague in matters of exact regions, projects and agendas. It is not clear if it is focusing more on EU cooperation with China, or with South-East Asia or with the wider Eurasian continent or with countries of the Eastern Partnership.
There seems to be no logical order, no regional cooperation priorities, and, because of this, there are no implementation roadmaps.
Furthermore, while talking about connectivity in the wider Eurasian space, two of its most important players – the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Chinese “Belt and Road” Initiative are never mentioned once in it.
This obvious omission contradicts the overall call for cooperation and evokes the thought that the EU is projecting its own agenda against that of the EAEU and China. This repeats the mistake of the Eastern Partnership approach by seeking confrontation where mutually beneficial cooperation would be quite simple to achieve.
In May 2015 China and the EAEU agreed on the conjunction of the Eurasian Union with the Silk Road Economic Belt, the land-based part of the BRI. Building on this, in May 2018 both parties signed a trade and economic cooperation agreement.
It is not clear how Brussels wants to achieve connectivity in Greater Eurasia without including the EAEU’ common market and transport space, covering 1:7 of the world’s landmass, and without involving the EAEU-Belt & Road cooperation that is already being implemented.
In conclusion, it can be said that the EU’s concept strategy on enhancing connectivity in the wider Eurasian space successfully lays out common principles and areas for cooperation. At the same time, its actual content would need further revising by the expert community, not only from Europe but equally important, from Russia, China, India and other affected Eurasian players.
In order to be a successful partner in the emerging Greater Eurasia, Brussels needs to show respect to other Eurasian initiatives and let go of its zero-sum game mentality.