December 7, 2004 - The Eurasian sub-region of the Black Sea and Caspian basins has become more prominent in international business and geopolitics than at anytime since 1991, when a long ongoing process of restructuring the European political and security architecture began.

The decade following the end of the Cold War witnessed a resurgence of the idea of regional cooperation in Eurasia among countries sharing common borders, common economic and security interests, and common concerns about their relationship with their future immediate neighbor: the European Union. The prospect of unification of the entire European continent for the first time, through peaceful means, has been the driving force behind the EU initiative to match its recent enlargement process by an offer of constructive partnership with its new neighbors to the east.

The region surrounding the Black and Caspian seas is one of the most diverse and complex in the world. As the geopolitical, commercial, and cultural crossroads between Europe and Asia, this region has been, since ancient times, a place where peoples of different nationalities, traditions, cultures, and religions meet and blend. For centuries, the famous "Silk Road" connected Europe with Asia through the Black Sea area.

Today, the region is going through a long, painful restructuring phase, being comprised of states that are transitioning from communist regimes to democracies and are at different levels of political, economic and social development. The considerable divergence and lack of homogeneity among these states is mainly due to the fact that the region includes countries that had communist economies until very recently; Russia and Turkey, two large regional powers that were at the helm of former empires; Greece, the only European Union country and a eurozone member; and Romania and Bulgaria, EU candidates that are expected to become members in 2007. EU leaders will decide at their December 2004 summit whether Turkey will begin accession negotiations. In addition, the region has four NATO members: Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Turkey.

In this new geostrategic reality, the Black Sea and Caspian region acquires an ever-increasing economic and political importance, taking into account developments in Iraq, the Middle East, and the Caspian basin. The importance of the region is defined by two primary factors: its size and location as a general transit route between Europe and Asia, and the presence of significant hydrocarbon resources, which make it, simultaneously, an energy producer, energy consumer, and energy transit area.

In June 1992, the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) was established at the initiative of then President of Turkey Turgut Ozal. Its main goal was to promote bilateral and multilateral economic cooperation among the members: Albania, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro, Turkey, and Ukraine. BSEC's members have built an organizational structure with well-developed inter-governmental, inter-parliamentary, business, banking, and academic dimensions. With the entry into force of its charter in 1999, BSEC was upgraded to a full-fledged regional economic organization.

In the years to come, the members of BSEC will face new economic and security challenges emanating from the enlargement of the European Union, which will bring the EU to the shores of the Black Sea; the war against terrorism, which is likely to directly affect the region since it is at the crossroads between Europe and Asia; and the ongoing process of globalization. As a result, BSEC has a role to play, through economic interaction between its members, in promoting peace and stability in sensitive areas of wider Europe, such as the Balkans and the Caucasus, and in furthering the creation of a common Eurasian economic space.

The effects of globalization on the transition process of most BSEC member states are sources of concern for these countries, whose economies have not yet adapted to European and world standards. Regional bilateral and multilateral cooperation is perhaps the only way to address the negative repercussions of globalization.

Following the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU in 2007, key issues will remain open: Where should the long-term borders of the EU be drawn? What will be the future relationship between the EU and its new neighbors? The EU is now called upon to define strategic goals and policies for wider Europe, which includes Russia, Ukraine, the Black Sea area, the Caspian region, and Central Asia.

On May 12, 2004, the European Commission paved the way for its relations with the countries of this region by adopting a new strategy paper called the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). The ENP offers the European Union's new neighbors a privileged relationship with the bloc, and its objective is "to share the benefits of the EU's 2004 enlargement with neighboring countries…" In particular, the ENP is addressed to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as the non-EU participants in the Euro-Mediterranean partnership. The countries of this partnership, which is also called the "Barcelona Process," are Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and the Palestinian Authority.

The ENP was drafted to meet one of the strategic objectives established by the EU in the European Security Strategy in December 2003, namely, building security in the EU's neighborhood. The ENP strongly encourages regional and sub-regional cooperation, and it also explicitly states that BSEC "has an important part to play" in this strategy.

At this important juncture, Greece has assumed the chairmanship of BSEC for the period from November 2004 to April 2005. As the only country in the organization that is a member of both NATO and the EU, Greece is now called upon to achieve a higher level of bilateral cooperation between the EU and BSEC through the promotion of more intense interaction between them at the inter-governmental, inter-parliamentary, business, and academic levels in line with the BSEC Economic Agenda for the future.

Greece will aim at further consolidating the internal organization of BSEC in order to enhance multilateral cooperation among its member states in as many sectors as possible. This cooperation will be furthered on the basis of a project-oriented approach as part of the Economic Agenda. Inter-governmental economic cooperation will focus on concrete sectors such as energy, institution building, and good governance; trade and economic development; transport; tourism; environmental protection; education; and science and technology.

Since BSEC was established, energy cooperation has been a top priority. The EU strongly supports the multiplicity of both suppliers and transport pipelines as a means of diversifying its supply of energy resources and of lowering energy prices. The same stands for Greece, an EU and BSEC member state, located at a strategic crossroads in the eastern Mediterranean region and southeastern Europe. Greece receives significant quantities of natural gas from Russia and small amounts of liquified natural gas (LNG) from Algeria. It has also signed inter-state agreements with Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran for the purchase of natural gas.

Greece and Turkey have signed an agreement for the construction of a pipeline, beginning in January 2005, that will transport natural gas from Azerbaijan to Greece through Turkey, with potential extensions to Italy or to the Western Balkans, terminating in Austria. In the oil sector, the expected signing of a political memorandum by Bulgaria, Greece, and Russia in Sofia by the end of 2004 for the construction of an oil pipeline from the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas to the Greek Aegean port of Alexandroupolis is an ambitious step in securing a viable transport route that will bypass the Bosporus Straits and will be parallel and complementary to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. Once the memorandum is signed, consultations will begin on the establishment of the Sponsor Group, which will construct and operate the pipeline.

In summary, Greece's primary goal is to institutionalize stronger ties between the EU and BSEC, within the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy. This process also presents a golden opportunity for the European Commission to implement the ENP in the Black Sea and the Caucasus in practical terms.

By the end of Greece's BSEC chairmanship in April 2005, a solid channel of communication and interaction between the EU and BSEC will have been established at Greece's initiative, pouring the benefits of EU enlargement in adjacent European countries into a region that is rapidly, and finally, being integrated into the critical network of international systems and institutions.