In late December 2019, the Chinese ambassador in Paris, Mr. Lu Shaye invited France and the European Union to join the new Silk Road.
What is the position of EU and the European member states?
Today, although a majority of EU member states have already taken the plunge, France and several western European states including Germany and Spain refuse to officially participate in this connectivity project.
For its part, the EU launched its own project in partnership with Japan in September 2019, while committing to work with China on the new Silk Road. The European position remains however confused and therefore requires a clearer commitment.
For our OBOReurope platform, the likelihood of France and the EU joining “Belt and Road” initiative would be excellent news that would accelerate development between our two regions.
However, there is a need for Europeans to question the goals they want to achieve through the BRI. Thus, although the signing of a memorandum of understanding between France and China would formalize French participation in this initiative, it would not be enough to actually involve France in the BRI. Memoranda of understanding signed between China and certain Europeans such as Italy remain vague regarding parties’ obligations.
For many European states, participation in the BRI is seen as a way to attract new Chinese investors, but few have a real understanding of the BRI, and unfortunately there is not a unique European strategy on this topic. This can create a situation of competition between European cities and territories for example in the Adriatic Sea.
Thus, the same day, on December 19, 2019, two forums dedicated to the new Silk Road were held in Paris and Marseille; this illustrate French (and European) stakeholders’ scattered response to China’s BRI.
Marseille’s objective is to become the main BRI hub in the western Mediterranean, but it goes without saying that other neighboring ports share the same ambition, such as Genoa in Italy, or Valencia in Spain. Without coordination, these local efforts will hardly lead to success. Europeans have to understand that when China invests in Piraeus, Chinese companies are not only interested in the Greek market but in the Balkans region. Per consequence, coordination is also reguired in West Mediterranean to rightly answer the BRI. Without substantial investments in multimodality, Mediterranean ports will hardly receive more traffic from the BRI. This inter-port competition exists of course in China, but this competition is limited by directives formulated by Beijing which has a real long-term vision. On the contrary, many European states are content with very short-term benefits.
Finally, the Europe’s BRI vision remains focused on Europe, and the opportunities created by the BRI on other continents are not sufficiently perceived.
Some European countries like France and Italy, are still interested in the development of the new Silk Road in Africa, but they focus mainly on cooperation and geopolitics, and most of the time, they fail to examine Africa’s economic dynamism and its strong need for infrastructure.
Likewise, the EU does not seem to be very present on the most important corridors of the BRI, for example, the European states have not (yet) defined a specific strategy on China Pakistan economic corridor, yet the most advanced corridor of the new Silk road. The Gulf states, on the contrary, have a strategy to integrate more broadly into the Belt and Road initiative.
It is time for European capitals to study the BRI as a whole and define a global vision for the new Silk Road.
China is regularly accused of dividing the European Union over the BRI issue, but it is up to European nations to adopt a united position in order to defend the interests of all of its members. China is moving fast on the new Silk Road, Europe must not be left behind, but must actively participate in this project.