But critics in Brussels fear the drive to bring coherence to the EU's approach to energy-rich and strategically important Central Asia could come at a high cost.
Some officials have told RFE/RL that they specifically fear the EU might be forced to ease the sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan in the wake of a bloody security crackdown in Andijon in 2005. Uzbekistan is the region's most populous country, and its cooperation is vital to the success of the EU's wider Central Asia strategy.
European Commission spokeswoman Christiane Hohmann told RFE/RL today that EU member states will begin to hammer out the details of the Central Asian Strategy on April 23.
"During Monday's [General and External Affairs Council meeting,] the member states will have [their] first discussion, a first round of discussions, on the draft for the EU's Central Asian Strategy, which we hope will then be adopted by the June [EU summit]," she said.
All 27 EU member states agree that closer links with Central Asia are desirable.
A meeting in the Kazakh capital, Astana, in late March between EU representatives and senior Central Asian officials produced a broad agreement on the need for such a strategy.
The EU has often recognized the region's enormous potential in contributing to meeting the bloc's energy needs. The EU is also interested in playing a greater role in the region and offers assistance in a wide range of fields.
A draft of the declaration the EU intends to adopt on April 23 provides a comprehensive list of EU priorities. These include cooperation on a long list of areas that include the rule of law, human rights, democratization, and security.
Attached to the declaration is a list of observations relating to the situations in some of the countries of the region. On Uzbekistan, the EU ministers are expected to "note" that a second round of EU-Uzbek expert talks on the Andijon events took place in Tashkent on April 2-3. The draft declaration also announces the launch of " a regular and result-oriented human rights dialogue" between the two sides, and says the first round of the dialogue should take place "as soon as possible."
Dialogue On Rights
Spokeswoman Hohmann says the EU has already secured Uzbekistan's agreement on such a dialogue.
"We are concerned about the situation in Uzbekistan, and you also know that we are hoping for a [prompt] human rights dialogue -- which the Uzbek government has [already] agreed to," she said.
An EU source who requested anonymity said there is dissatisfaction among some member states over Germany's attempts to launch an immediate human rights dialogue with Tashkent before the bloc can debate the future of the Uzbek sanctions.
The sanctions at this point consist of a visa ban on select officials associated with the Andijon events and an arms embargo. They are due to be reviewed by EU foreign ministers in May.
During discussions among EU ambassadors on April 17, Britain and Sweden were said to have been particularly concerned about Uzbekistan's continuing dismal human rights record.
Paving The Way?
A regular human rights dialogue and an international inquiry into the events in Andijon are the two key EU conditions for lifting sanctions. Some member states in Brussels now suspect that in the interest of the success of its broader Central Asian strategy, Germany may be attempting to smooth Uzbekistan's path to meeting the two conditions.
There is little to indicate that Uzbekistan can achieve genuine compliance with either condition. One EU official today conceded that the human rights dialogue would only take place once a year between low-level officials in a subcommittee dealing with justice and domestic-affairs issues. Within the framework of that dialogue, Uzbekistan can raise issues about the human rights situation in EU member states. A similar arrangement the EU has with Russia has become a forum for tit-for-tat comments.
The two rounds of EU-Uzbek expert talks on the Andijon events have left EU members thoroughly frustrated. EU officials questioned by RFE/RL limited their appraisals of the meetings to "satisfaction" at the fact that they took place at all. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, has not given any indication it is prepared to discuss the Andijon events with any outside organization.
On November 8, 2006, Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov told reporters after a meeting with EU officials that the purpose of the talks would be limited to "explaining" to EU experts the Uzbek view that the events in Andijon were "pre-meditated terrorist acts."
EU officials said today that the situation in Central Asia will also be raised at talks that EU representatives will hold with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the bloc's foreign ministers' meeting on April 23.