Connecting Europe and Asia… through the Marco Polo Young Leaders Initiative!

Promoting dialogue and cooperation between Europe and Eurasia in the European interest by gathering young leaders, researchers and undertakers from across the wider Eurasian space to discuss the main challenges and opportunities of such cooperation. This is the aim of the Marco Polo Young Leaders Initiative, the first edition of which took place during the 11th prestigious Eurasian Economic Forum held at the Palazzo della Gran Guardia in Verona, Italy on October 26th, 2018.

The session, hosted by the European Society for Eurasian Cooperation (ESEC), an Austrian grassroots NGO, was supported by the organisers of the Forum, the “Conoscere Eurasia” Association and the Rosscongress Foundation.

The Forum itself was attended by high-level policymakers and business leaders, among others: Matteo SaIvini, Deputy Prime Minister of Italy; Minister of the Interior; Igor Sechin, Presidente and CEO Rosneft;  Romano Prodi, Prime Minister of Italy, 1996–1998, 2006–2008, President of the European Commission 1999-2004;  Michael Harms, Executive Director, German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations; Andrey Kostin, President, Chairman of the Board VTB; Tatyana Valovaya, Minister of Integration and Macroeconomics, Eurasian Economic Commission; Elena Burmistrova, Director General, Gazprom Export; Veronika Nikishina, Minister of Trade, Eurasian Economic Commission.

The session “Connecting Europe and Asia – Challenges and Opportunities for Europe” was moderated by ESEC’s vice-president Elia Bescotti, a visiting scholar with the Leibniz Institute for East and South East European Studies of Regensburg, Germany. The speakers of the panel were: Gregory Jullien, Advisor, European Parliament; Victor Shakhmatov, Head, Consolidated Analytical Section, Eurasian Economic Commission; Matvey Navdaev, Advisor to the Head, Federal Agency for Youth Affairs of Russia; Yuri Kofner, Research Assistant, Advanced Systems Analysis, IIASA; Praket Arya, Senior Research Fellow, India Foundation. All of the speakers became the first members of the Marco Polo Young Leaders Initiative.

Gregory Jullien from the European Parliament welcomed the fact that the EU finally presented its own strategy proposal on connectivity and cooperation in Eurasia. He himself participated in the 12th ASEM summit held in Brussels in October 2018. There the focus was on more connectivity between Europe and Asia.

However, as Gregory underlined, the EU is sceptical about the impact that the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could have on some European countries, especially in strategic investments sectors. Although some progress should be underlined, this new connectivity strategy concept is far from being a cooperative framework for the BRI, mostly since the EU still does not have a common policy on the Chinese initiative. Rather, certain Central Eastern and South Eastern European countries, as well as Italy, support the initiative, while France, Germany and Poland keep an ambiguous stance.

In this saturation, Gregory argued, technical cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) would desirable because of the economic benefits that this cooperation would entail and due to the importance of the economic ties between the EU and the EAEU member states.

Concluding his remarks, Gregory quoted EU President Donald Tusk who at the 12th ASEM summit argued that: “A modern-day Marco Polo could well repeat the words of the great explorer: “I did not write a half of what I saw, for I knew I would be not believed”. Indeed, for Europe there is much to see in Eurasia, but above all there is still much to do.

Agreeing with his colleague, Viktor Shakhmatov from the Eurasian Economic Commission expressed his hope for developing and enhancing this cooperation. He underlined that politics should be left outside of the dialogue between the two integration projects, at least for the moment.  Discussions should be technical and instead be focused on economic issues. Victor stressed that the two integration projects should not be be considered mutually exclusive and in competition to each other. Since membership in the EAEU does not exclude any member state from cooperation with the EU, partnership between the two supranational organisations would be not only possible, but favourable. This is true, not only from the Eurasian side, as the partnership agreements between the EU and Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan demonstrate, but also the other way around, as shown by the memorandums signed by Greece and Hungary with the EAEU. The question is whether Brussels is indeed interested real cooperation with the Eurasian Union.

However, the EAEU is interested not only in cooperating with the EU, but also with its Asian-Pacific partners. Here the EEC has already achieved serious progress. Since 2015 the EAEU has signed a number of economic partnership agreements: with Vietnam (an FTA), Iran (a preliminary FTA) and China (a non-peferential trade and economic cooperation agreement). Among others, a free trade agreement with India is currently being negotiated.

Yuri Kofner from IIASA focused on the challenges and opportunities of the above mentioned potential EU – EAEU cooperation. But first he also commented on the “Connecting Europe and Asia” strategy proposal, recently adopted by Brussels.

On the one hand, Yuri welcomed the fact that there was now a common position taken by the EU towards connectivity in Greater Eurasia, at least on paper. He supported the principles, outlined in the document, on developing more connectivity: EU’s comprehensive approach on “connectivity”, which includes not only transport, but also the energy, digital and human dimensions; the idea of economic and ecological sustainability of investments; and the call for common standards and rules.

On the other hand, the adopted strategy is rather vague, mentions neither the EAEU nor the Belt and Road by name (on purpose?) and leaves some doubts concerning whether this strategy actually seeks more competition rather than cooperation. This is especially true regarding the EU Eastern Partnership countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) and Central Asia, as they are areas of heightened interest for both regional economic blocs – the EU and the EAEU.

Furthermore, there are somewhat divergent interested between the EU and the EAEU in respect to economic cooperation. On the one hand, the EU is interested in trade liberalization to boost EU exports, deregulation and enhancing competition in the EAEU member states, to get a better accession to their markets, and guarantees on energy security from the supply side. On the other hand, the EAEU is interested in protecting its sensitive and less competitive industrial sectors, in receiving more European investments, in technology transfer and in guarantees on energy security from the demand side. To sum up, Europe’s interest entails traditional trade liberalization, while the EAEU is more interested in non-preferential trade and economic cooperation. A possible compromise, Yuri argued, could be creation of an asymmetric FTA with bilateral agreements on sensible sectors.

Praket Arya from the India Foundation discussed his country’s interests and potentials in joining cooperation in Greater Eurasia. As an emerging great power, India is the fastest developing economy worldwide, rooted also upon ancient culture and history, and being one of the most inclusive, diverse and democratic states in the area.  “Powerful on all five pillars of security, prosperity, identity, charity and divinity, India is a cultural civilisation that has transformed into a modern democratic nationhood”. This brings it close to the European Union in terms of values and Weltanschauung.

India, as underlined by Praket, is interested in connecting itself to Europe and the Eurasian heartland and its resources through the planned North-South transport corridor. However, there are some major difficulties to this project. Firstly, India could connect itself to Central Asia through China, but this is prevented by some major geographical problems given by the Himalaya and the enormous costs that infrastructure projects in this area would involve. A geographically and economically practicable way, secondly, would be connecting India to Central Asia via Pakistan, which is unfeasible from a political standpoint. This clearly represents a parallel with the effects of the Ukrainian crisis. Thus, India, in these terms, is isolated. Thirdly, in order to connect to Europe and to the wider Eurasian landmass, the North-South transport corridor is planned to be multimodal by going through the Arabic Sea, Iran, the Caucasus and Caspian region, and Russia. Iran, despite Western sanctions, represents a relevant partner for India, also due to its energy resources.

Concluding the session, Matvey Navdaev from the Russian Federal Youth Agency (Rosmolodezh) stressed the need to overcome political tensions in Greater Eurasia by tackling mutual stereotypes and misconceptions.

Through initiatives supported by Rosmolodezh, such as the Eurasia Youth Forum in Orenburg or the Arctic Youth Forum in Archangelsk, Russia is trying to build vital people to people contacts in the wider Eurasian space. These meeting platforms seek to support not only cultural exchange, but also young entrepreneurship and networks of youth ventures and research initiatives. Matvey underlined the importance of the young generation in building better politics of tomorrow. “When young people gather, stereotypes are overcome”.

This is also one of the ideas behind the Marco Polo Young Leaders Initiative promoted by ESEC to develop a pro-European network of young leaders, government officials, entrepreneurs, researchers and journalists across the continent. The first event of the initiative in Verona was a full success and it is planned to continue this tradition at next year’s Forum. Further events of the network are also planned in Vienna and Brussels for 2019.

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