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EU: Ministers Approve Bloc's Central Asia Strategy

Benita Ferrero-Waldner arriving at the meeting in Luxembourg today (epa) LUXEMBOURG, June 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- EU foreign ministers have given their approval to the bloc's first-ever strategy for cooperation with Central Asia at their meeting in Luxembourg today.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described it best when he said Central Asia has been "like a blind spot in the EU's field of vision."

The region commands immense reserves of oil and gas, provides a land bridge between Europe and Asia, and also straddles major drug-trafficking routes emanating from Afghanistan. Yet it has been the only major global region to so far lack an official EU strategy.

The German blueprint approved by the EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg today is virtually certain to be endorsed unchanged by an EU summit on June 21-22.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner observed after the Luxembourg meeting that global powers are increasingly interested in Central Asia, and the EU must act quickly not be left behind.

"If we see the necessities to work with these countries and not only have them cooperate, for instance, with China, with Russia, with Japan, there is a great chance also for us [the EU] to take them on," Ferrero-Waldner said.

The German blueprint approved by the EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg today is virtually certain to be endorsed unchanged by an EU summit on June 21-22.

The strategy will address a wide field of issues ranging from democracy and human rights to trade, energy cooperation, migration, and inter-cultural dialogue.

The EU's overriding interest has so far been trying to secure independent access to Central Asian oil and gas reserves in order to reduce its dependence on Russia.

But Steinmeier said that the EU intends to adopt a broader strategic view as well.

"Economic links, energy-trading links can be one basis [for EU engagement with Central Asia], but it is just one among many," he said. "We are also very concerned about political stability in this context, which, as you know, is threatened by instabilities in the southern neighborhood, be it Afghanistan [or] be it Iran."

Diplomats say the focus on Afghanistan is a recent development, inspired by concerns about growing instability in that country.

The bloc's Central Asian strategy has in recent months come under intense criticism from human-rights defenders, who say the EU downplays human rights concerns -- in particular in its relations with Uzbekistan -- in order to secure a positive response to the strategy in the region.

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