Economy

EU and Kazakhstan aim to forge 'ever closer' relations

23 June 2022
EU and Kazakhstan aim to forge 'ever closer' relations

The EU and Kazakhstan have agreed to step up co-operation in a bid to forge “ever closer” relations, writes Martin Banks.

The pledge came following a meeting in Luxembourg on June 20 of the Co-operation Council, the body that oversees EU/Kazakh relations.

The Co-operation Council, the 19th to be held, reviewed the progress made in the implementation of EU-Kazakhstan Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA), which entered into force on 1 March 2020.

Chaired by the French minister of foreign affairs Catherine Colonna and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan, Mukhtar Tileuberdi, the council discussed the state of play between the two sides and next steps of the EU-Kazakhstan Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.

Political, economic and trade matters (including internal reforms, rule of law and human rights, regional trade) and cooperation all took centrestage while the two delegations also touched on regional and international developments and cooperation, including security.

After the meeting a joint statement was issued which stated both parties confirmed the “mutual commitment” to “further strengthen” bilateral relations and reviewed progress made in the implementation of EPCA.

Bilateral cooperation between Kazakhstan and the European Union, it said, has “progressed steadily, and has become even more relevant” in light of the current geopolitical context, through high-level contacts and continued exchanges at different levels.

The EU said it had conveyed a “strong message” of commitment to the bilateral relations and the demonstrated willingness to “open new avenues of cooperation” in the framework of the EPCA, for instance on critical raw materials.

The current geopolitical context, said the statement, has “highlighted the need” for new alternative routes that connect Asia and Europe, and connectivity has become an area of strategic importance where there is a mutual interest for further cooperation.

On trade, the EU delegation said it “welcomed” the advanced level of economic relations developed between the two sides.

The EU is Kazakhstan’s first trade partner and first foreign investor, and Kazakhstan remains the main trade partner of the EU in Central Asia.

In 2021, the trade balance reached €12 bn in favour of Kazakhstan.

The EU spokesman added that it welcomed the successful cooperation in the framework of the EU-Kazakhstan High–Level Business Platform launched in 2019, and in particular the “constructive spirit” shown by Kazakhstan in addressing concerns shared by EU investors.

The platform acknowledges the importance of the EU in Kazakhstan's external trade, and opens possibilities to explore new avenues of cooperation.

The meeting also provided an opportunity for “reinforced political dialogue and addressed issues of good governance, the promotion and protection of human rights, and engagement with civil society.”

The EU, however, noted that it “shared its concerns” regarding the January violent disturbances across the country – prompted by rising fuel prices - and highlighted the importance of a “full and independent investigation” that would be shared with the international community, including on human rights violations.

Brussels is glad to see the political reform path that Kazakhstan has embarked on, notably the constitutional referendum that took place on 5 June.

“With this referendum, the people of Kazakhstan supported important constitutional amendments aimed at strengthening the democracy of the country,” said a source.

The EU equally welcomed Kazakhstan's Green Agenda and its “commitment” to a green transition and Kazakhstan’s pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. The source said it looked forward to seeing the target reflected in the revised NDC. The EU offered its expertise and support to modernise Kazakhstan’s energy system by harnessing its sun and wind potential.

The statement concluded by saying that it recognised Kazakhstan as an “influential” regional player and its constructive role in regional cooperation. Regional security was also discussed, including the situation in Afghanistan, border management, and counter-terrorism.

The meeting represents a good opportunity to take stock of where things stand between Kazakhstan and the EU.

Despite being the largest landlocked country in the world, Kazakhstan has, in recent years, become more “global” in its  outlook.

It held the chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010 and was a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (in 2017-2018). Kazakhstan has also been elected a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (for 2022-2024).

In terms of its relations with Brussels, Kazakhstan increased its turnover with the EU by 15% during 2021, despite the health pandemic. Despite the health crisis, EU foreign direct investment in Kazakhstan in 2020 totalled some $8 billion, just under 2019, and the volume of trade reached €20 billion.

An estimated 27,000 companies from EU member states have long-term economic operations with the Kazakhstan market while some 3,700 Kazak firms have similar activities with the EU.

A source at the Kazak embassy in Brussels said this shows “that the dynamic of our relations is strong.”

One key driver, he said, has been the EPCA, the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement which entered into force on 1 March 2020 and covers no less than 29 areas of cooperation.

Kazakhstan’s climate ambitions are similar to the EU and its Green Deal. Indeed, President Tokayev’s pledge for Kazakhstan to become climate neutral by 2060. Kazakhstan produces about 60% of the region’s gross domestic product can be a “gateway for the EU” for all manner of projects.

Kazakhstan’s reform process, as announced by President Tokayev during his state of the nation address on March 16, embraces far-reaching reforms in the political system and new economic measures.

They have been applauded by, among others, Kazakhstan's Commissioner for Human Rights, Elvira Azimova.

Like others she was shocked by the street protests that took place at the start of the year and which led to the deaths of over 200 people.

While these were, she says, “tragic events” she hopes they “gave hope to citizens who support change.”

A recent discussion in Brussels focused on some of these changes to the country’s constitution.

The event, on 'Kazakhstan’s Referendum on Constitutional Amendments – The future of Kazakhstan–EU relations', heard that, on 5 June the people of Kazakhstan cast their vote in the national referendum on Constitutional Amendments. This was a first step in the implementation of the political reforms announced in the President’s state-of-the-nation in March.

With a voter turnout of 68.44%, of which 77.18% voted in favour of the constitutional amendments, the referendum has provided President Tokayev with a mandate to advance further political reform in Kazakhstan, the event, organised by the EIAS, was told.

The referendum introduces amendments to 31 articles and adds two new ones, while proposing amendments to a third of the Constitution overall.

Giving the Constitution a “New Dimension” the suggested reforms aim to create a legal framework for a further transition towards a presidential republic, redistribution of a number of existing powers, in addition to strengthening the role and status of the Parliament; increasing citizen’s participation in the country’s governance; and strengthening the mechanisms for the protection of citizens’ rights.

Kazakhstan is also seen as having a vital and evolving role in contemporary geopolitics. 

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began over four months ago, Kazakhstan has surprised the world with its quick re-emergence after the tragic January 2022 unrest, new far-reaching reforms, and its independent foreign policy.

 Kazakhstan, however, did not allow the Russian-dominated Commonwealth Security Treaty Organisation’s intervention in the January tragedy to sway its decision-making processes, and has resolved to maintain its multi-vector foreign policy and orientation towards market reforms and social justice. These moves have bequeathed the West an invaluable strategic opportunity.

Next up is the EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting in the autumn which the EU source said it looks forward to.

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