by Dr. Sebastien Goulard
On 15th September 2021, during her State of the Union address, European Union (EU) Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the upcoming launch of the Global Gateway initiative. This connectivity programme, yet to be presented, is to better connect the EU to the world and make the EU a global player.
Although denied by EU institutions, media outlets describe the EU Global Gateway as a rival to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In her speech, von der Leyen stressed that ‘it does not make sense for Europe to build a perfect road between a Chinese-owned copper mine and a Chinese-owned harbour’. Her statement undoubtedly targets China’s investment in emerging and developing countries and the fact that EU-supported projects abroad may not benefit European companies.
Global Gateway will help the construction of new quality infrastructure to boost trade between Europe and the world, but also to better integrate supply chains. Another aspect of Global Gateway is regarding the development of green and digital technology, a sector where the EU shows some weaknesses compared to the United States (US), China or even South Korea.
With Global Gateway, the EU also pledges to offer projects with high governance standards. The objective is to support developing countries towards prosperity without posing dependence threats.
For von der Leyen, Global Gateway will help the EU to develop new relations in the Indo-Pacific, a region of growing importance for EU ‘prosperity and security’. However, Global Gateway’s scope will not be limited to Asia; in her speech, von der Leyen mentioned an optic cable project between Portugal and Brazil and some energy projects in Africa. Global Gateway may ultimately hold most connectivity projects supported by every EU member, which would give a strong image of the EU.
Although the Global Gateway and the BRI may be seen as possible competitors, there is very unlikely to be serious confrontation between the EU and China over the construction of infrastructure facilities in third countries. Some large European companies are already involved in some BRI programmes and may also participate in Global Gateway projects. The European initiative may bar Chinese state-owned companies from getting directly involved in projects supported by the EU, but Chinese companies might still participate in consortia led by European companies.
One positive aspect for developing countries is that they will be given more options about the projects they want to conduct and China and the EU will have to make the best offers to conduct these projects.
It is also likely that there might be some cooperation, or at least some coordination, between the BRI and Global Gateway projects. Host countries may prefer to include both the EU’s and China’s supported projects to maintain some balanced relations with both powers.
Possible challenges to address
There are not currently enough details available about the EU’s Global Gateway to evaluate the initiative and compare it with China’s BRI. The amount of resources devoted to Global Gateway has not been disclosed and there is no information about the financial mechanisms used for Global Gateway projects, although von der Leyen stated that for these projects , the EU will ‘connect institutions and investment, banks and the business community’and will rely partly on the private sector.
The EU is rightly proud of the transparency and openness of its initiative. However, these high standards may make those projects harder and lengthier to conduct, and a one-size-fits-all approach may not be the right format for every project, especially in countries that need rapid construction of infrastructure to address large-scale urbanization challenges.
The Global Gateway initiative reflects the EU’s search for strategic autonomy, but it remains unclear how independent this new programme will be. Will there be any kind of coordination with the US-promoted ‘Build Back Better’ programme? Furthermore, EU countries do not share the same vision about the regions where the EU needs to increase its interests. This may prevent Global Gateway from being implemented smoothly around the world.
The EU’s Global Gateway may become another solution for developing countries to address specific infrastructure development issues. However, it may be wrong for the EU to label this project as a rival to China’s BRI, as host countries may not be ready to choose between Europe and China.