Over the last 20 years, Kazakhstan’s diplomatic and trade ties with the European Union have grown quietly and steadily and have reached a point in the modern era of unprecedented cooperation and benefit for both sides. Economically, socially, and on the vital issues of energy and security, the bridge between East and West has never been stronger. The enthusiasm of the EU and its member nations for closer ties with Kazakhstan is easy to explain. Europe wants more access to the energy and the investment opportunities in the fastest growing economy and largest energy reserves in Central Asia. Kazakhstan is also the largest and most interesting bridgehead for Western values in the heart of Eurasia. It provides a tolerant and cosmopolitan society that stands as an example for the future of the region.
The growing energy relationship between Europe and Kazakhstan can be seen in the success enjoyed by major European energy corporations, such as Total of France, EniSpA of Italy, Royal Dutch Shell of The Netherlands (and Britain) and BG of Britain in developing, in close cooperation with the Kazakh government and state energy companies, Kazakhstan’s oil and gas fields. Western Europe also remains eager to import as much of the natural gas riches of the Caspian Basin as it can. Kazakhstan, ever so eager to diversify export routes for its huge hydrocarbon resources, also shares a European desire tocomplete the massive and game-changing Nabucco gas pipeline across Azerbaijan, former Soviet Georgia and Turkey to the Mediterranean, provided it is economically feasible for Kazakhstan-based companies to export via that pipeline. The Nabucco pipeline is an international project that would ensure direct transport of Central Asia natural gas to Europe while bypassing Russia’s traditional monopoly on such exports. European hunger for Caspian Basin energy is expected to increase significantly in the coming decades, and EU leaders want to diversify import routes beyond Russian control.
Kazakhstan, as the world’s leading uranium producer and exporter, also has a natural relationship with France, which is the Western world’s leading generator of nuclear energy from pressurized water reactors. Its reactors produce 80 percent of France’s total annual generating output.
Other areas of mutual economic benefit between the regions include Kazakhstan’s aggressive industrialization development programme, which has created an enormous market for European steel, engineering products, expertise and industrial technologies. France and Germany are Kazakhstan’s biggest trading partners in Europe but trade and high-tech industrial ties are flourishing with countries across the continent. In addition, German and French companies have signed far-reaching exploration, mining and production agreements with their Kazakh counterparts to seek supplies of the 17 elements known as rare earths that are essential for the manufacture of many high-tech devices. The EU and its leading nations have also consistently supported Kazakhstan’s process of joining the World Trade Organization. These economic agreements and relationships are likely to solidify stable ties between Europe and Kazakhstan for decades to come.
Strong economic and cultural relations with Western Europe, especially its leading Western nations of Germany, France, Britain, Spain and Italy, also offer particular advantages to Kazakhstan that relations with other developed nations do not. They offer all the advantages of superpower support without the complications that come with Russian, American and Chinese relationships. European nations are also particularly attractive partners because they focus on economic relations and “soft” cultural and diplomatic ties. They do not, for example, seek military bases. There are fewer historical security issues that come with strong European ties. European cultural and even political influences are also less overwhelming than American ones are often perceived to be. Kazakhstan is committed, as President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Prime Minister Karim Massimov and Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov repeatedly emphasize, to a multi-vector diplomatic and investment strategy. Maintaining and expanding ties with Europe are essential parts of that strategy.
Recent Kazakh diplomatic successes have also played roles in increasing the nation’s influence in Brussels and other European capitals. Kazakhstan currently chairs the 57-nation Organization for Islamic Cooperation and has been using its year of leadership as an opportunity to build cross-culture ties between the nations of the Muslim and Christian worlds. In 2010, Kazakhstan also had a successful year chairing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, culminating in an historic OSCE summit in Astana in December 2010 that reinvigorated the venerable body. And this year, the globally significant decision was taken to locate the new international low enriched uranium bank under the IAEA auspices in Kazakhstan. This is going to be a crucial institution which will help reduce the threat of the unauthorized proliferation of nuclear materials around the world, a danger that has long been a strategic priority for the Europeans as well as for Kazakhstan. With so many of the same values and visions as its European partners, while also bringing to the relationship access to and a cultural understanding of the rising East, Kazakhstan is well positioned for continued strong relationships with Europe for years to come.