Chris Poray / Dec 2021
Jutta Urpilainen, European Commissioner for International Partnerships. Photo: European Union, 2021
President Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission has followed through on her September State of the Union promise on 1 December, with the launch of the European Union’s infrastructure development plan, Global Gateway. This €300 billion plan will, despite the lack of naming its direct competitor, compete with China’s global infrastructure development strategy, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with a focus on “smarter investments”, with Commissioner von der Leyen stating that European investment shouldn’t build a road “between a Chinese-owned copper mine and a Chinese-owned harbour”.
Whilst the Belt and Road Initiative has significantly more capital in comparison to its European counterpart, Europe has the ability to utilise its soft power, producing an infrastructure plan that “values-driven, (with) high standards, and transparent”, consistent criticisms of the BRI. This economic plan is inherently intertwined with a political will to create an autonomous Europe, less reliant on outside external investment and imports, ranging from computer chips to energy supplies, data flows and semi-conductors. The lack of native technological production allows Europe to fall behind its competitors.
Brussels has adopted China’s policy of ijing cuzheng (using economics to promote politics), who has seen their Eastern European members join the BRI offering China significant leverage in their march to be the global economic hegemon. The key strategic line that the EU are adopting is that this development aid is more secure than China’s, creating “links not dependencies”, as von der Leyen puts it. Utilising both public and private investment provides the European alternative to the BRI, allowing more checks and balances in place in comparison to its Chinese equivalent.
The investment figure of €300 billion over a seven-year period, 2021-2027 may seem significant, however it is dwarfed in comparison to the BRI’s pre-pandemic investment levels of €100 billion per year. The Global Gateway is a step in the right direction, with the Fifth Generation of Mobile Network (5G) being rolled out across the globe, access to European made and secure networks is critical to the safety of citizens and security of Member States and the wider Bloc. This technology, and later 6G, Quantum and Optical Communications, will provide Europeans access to safer, more secure, and resilient technology and services.
With infrastructure moving towards an interlinked ‘smart’ system and progress towards autonomous and green transportation, cyber defence has never been as important, but the defence necessities are a harder sell. When you buy a fleet of tanks you are able to view and use your purchase: investing into cyber defence means investing into business as usual and it’s only when it’s too late that you wished you had invested more.
Whilst critics have been quick to denounce the criticisms of the Chinese BRI and subsequently the Global Gateway, citing those developing nations in receipt of BRI aid as seeing benefit, an alternative for developing and developed nations creates competition and drives standards and benefits up for all involved. US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, recently visited the Commission in support of greater cooperation with the equivalent programme in the US, Build Back Better. Cooperation in that direction may bring greater financial influence, but the soft power and ‘trustfulness’ that Europe possesses in comparison to the US’ questionable development record means Brussels must ensure cooperation doesn’t hamper European progress.
With the preliminary groundwork laid for the latest European project, it is up to the Commission and its Member States to ensure the Global Gateway keeps up with the BRI, which has had since 2013 to lay foundations for easy and quick access to funds. The Global Gateway is a start but by no means does it meet the needs or demands of the current global economic market. As we saw in the COVID pandemic with the acquisition and rollout of the vaccine programme, Europe lagged behind many global partners. Whilst it has since caught-up, the head start Beijing possesses may mean it is too little too late.