It wouldn’t be autumn in Brussels without its slew of conferences to welcome the city’s policy wonks back from a long European summer vacation. This week’s all-day conclave devoted to “The New European Parliament: What Priorities for Foreign Affairs, Security, and Defence?” covered a lot of ground, especially when the subtitle indicated that it would include Transatlantic relations, Russia, Iran, and Central Asia. Despite the perhaps over-ambitious agenda, a number of impressive speakers were packed into the schedule. Full disclosure: I chaired the workshop on “Iran and Central Asia,” obviously an expert now that I've been twice to Uzbekistan.
Chatham House rules prevent me from citing individual speakers, but suffice it to say that there were MEPs, EU Commission and Council representatives, as well as distinguished diplomats and academic experts. The only sparks that flew were intellectual, as the very florid Italian Professore Irnerio Seminatore, director of conference organizer IERI, shared his trademark passion for realpolitik, which he sees as an endangered species in need of protection in this city dedicated to multilateral and intergovernmental organizations. The event was co-sponsored by ISIS-Europe (organizer of this year’s excellent “NATO Shadow Summit“), and the Euro-Atlantic Association of Belgium (AEAB).
If I give short shrift to the workshop on Russia and the EU’s Eastern Partnership, it’s because I couldn’t be in two places at once. Read about the Eastern Partnership on the EU's official DG Relex page. It was also impossible to take advantage of Ambassador Pierre Morel’s dual-hatted expertise as EU Special Representative for Georgia (part of the Eastern Partnership) and EU Special Representative for Central Asia. Luckily for my panel, he put on his Central Asia hat.
Garnering as much knowledge as possible about sometimes-troubled lands to the East is in the interests of Europe and its Parliament. The audience was reminded of Europe’s energy dependence on Russia, but also its deep commercial ties that go beyond gas. The US-Russian talks on Iran, which were barely over when our conference started, were a reminder that Europe’s geo-strategic concerns are shared by the two nuclear giants.
We were reminded of Iran’s once central position in Western assumptions (mostly those of American Presidents) as “an island of stability” in the Middle East. That same heyday of the Shah saw the birth of Iran’s nuclear program, which is so troubling to its neighbors and to the West. But given Iran’s long history - Persia was a “world power” for centuries when “the world” was more strictly defined - and its strains of national pride and/or national victim hood, it won’t be easy to woo Tehran from what it considers its right to develop nuclear power (homework assignment: define "Power").
Central Asia’s inclusion in the debate illustrates what one expert called “the discovery of Central Asia” by Western policy makers. As Afghanistan’s and Iran’s immediate northern neighbors, they are affected by dangers of fundamentalism, of instability, and of war, and their voices need to be heard as we look at the wider region.
In all, not a bad way to kick off the conference season, and a reminder that things start in the East (image: sunrise over Eurasia by the talented Tibor Tóth).
This post first appeared in Euractiv's "Blogactiv," a compendium of European opinion.