The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of connecting markets and people. However, the broader question of promoting sustainable connectivity in the fields of energy, transport, digital sphere and people-to-people contacts, looms large over many of the challenges of our time.
The five nations of Central Asia have built up real momentum in their push to work together more closely. This creates a moment of true opportunity to build a joint vision of connected networks, linking their region to South Asia and further afield, including Europe.
Our aim is clear, we want to pursue long-lasting and viable connections with and within Central Asia and Afghanistan, working with the private sector and rolling out high quality investments in physical infrastructure and regulatory frameworks, conforming to the highest international standards.
We know very well, that we, in the EU, are not the only ones exploring ways to build connections in, and to, this region. Yet, the EU, together with our Member States and financial partners, has a long-established presence in there already. Europe has provided over €60 billion of Foreign direct investments (FDI) to the region. Between 2014 and 2020, the EU allocated over €2.5 billion of grants in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
We are committed to maintaining this level of engagement in the region, rolling out further connectivity projects with a focus on digitalisation and energy.
Connectivity has the potential to build bridges – literally and figuratively - creating jobs and wealth that are the fertile ground in which peace can flourish. However, we stand at a dangerous juncture as international forces withdraw from Afghanistan and the cycle of violence in the country accelerates. This threatens these nascent connections.
We cannot separate our discussion on connectivity from our efforts to support a politically negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. The EU is committed to promoting a lasting peace there. We are ready to help building an Afghanistan that is safe for its citizens, and where their rights are respected and protected. Connectivity initiatives could be a vehicle to link the region from North to South, and bring prosperity to its people. But this would only be possible with peace, which has no alternative.
The European Union’s continued support to Afghanistan will remain conditional on the preservation of the achievements of the last twenty years, notably the respect for fundamental rights and freedoms. That includes rights of women and the protection of minorities, strengthening of state institutions and fighting corruption.
The EU will stand firmly in favour of an inclusive, Afghan owned and led peace process. It stands ready to support the people and the government of Afghanistan in their efforts to safeguard the achievements of the past decades and work on building a democratic, inclusive, peaceful and prosperous nation. We have always supported this, and will not waiver from it.
A safe and stable Afghanistan means better opportunities for the whole region. We also count on our partners to join efforts in this regard.
The need for infrastructure investment in Central and South Asia is substantial. The EU, as Central Asia’s main trading partner and biggest investor, has the capacity to help Central Asia connect with its neighbours, giving shape to the North-South corridor. With a growing population of more than 114 million people, Central Asia and Afghanistan are a large and growing market with a prosperous future. Sustainable connectivity has a key role to play in our recovery from the Covid pandemic, helping us to build back better and greener.
In 2018, the European Union launched its strategy for ‘Connecting Europe and Asia’ that set out our vision for a sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based approach to connectivity. Just this week, we took this vision to the next step agreeing with EU Foreign Ministers on a series of steps that we will take on connectivity, building on our existing commitment to sustainability, partnerships, and a level playing field.
We are eager to share our experience in building connections. In the spirit of the “Team Europe” that brings together our Member States and financing institutions, we aim at stepping up our involvement in Central and South Asia, as well as creating opportunities for private sector participation.
At the international conference on “Central and South Asia Regional Connectivity: Challenges and Opportunities” in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) on 15-16 July, I will outline the European Union’s (EU) approach to the promotion of sustainable connectivity in Central and South Asia, and beyond.
Our Central Asian partners can count on the European Union to work with them to overcome the security and economic challenges of our time. We can bring our two regions more closely together into interconnected space.