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EU Unveils New Deals In Plan To Challenge China's Belt And Road


European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addresses the EU Global Gateway Forum on October 25 in Brussels.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addresses the EU Global Gateway Forum on October 25 in Brussels.

The European Union has announced a raft of multimillion dollar deals at a forum for its Global Gateway program, the bloc’s new infrastructure partnership plan that’s seen as an alternative to China’s worldwide Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The first Global Gateway Forum kicked off in Brussels on October 25 and featured 90 top government representatives from more than 20 countries, including 40 leaders and ministers mostly from across the Global South.

The 27-country EU announced that Global Gateway already had 66 billion euros ($69.6 billion) in deals at the opening of the summit and proceeded to ink an additional 3 billion euros ($3.2 billion) worth of new agreements with governments across Europe, Asia, and Africa during the multiday gathering to support projects related to critical raw minerals, green energy, and transport corridors.

In her opening speech, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen vowed to pursue high-quality investments, saying that Global Gateway was a “better choice” for financing and building clean infrastructure.

“Global Gateway is about giving countries a choice, and a better choice,” she said, adding that other investment options often come at a “high price” for the environment, workers’ rights, and sovereignty.

Launched in late 2021 and championed by von der Leyen, Global Gateway has earmarked 300 billion euros ($316 million) in a bid to streamline the EU’s investment and development cooperation across the globe. Officials say the program will prioritize projects focused on renewable energy, digital transitions, and sustainability as Brussels looks to mobilize investment from member states and the private sector.

EU officials have avoided publicly framing Global Gateway as an alternative to BRI, but the summit in Brussels comes a week after China gathered representatives of more than 130 countries to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its $1 trillion global investment plan and the EU looks to be prioritizing elements such as transparency and environmental sustainability that have been repeated points of criticism for Beijing’s BRI.

Speaking to RFE/RL, EU diplomats voiced tacit support for Global Gateway, but expressed concerns that the program faced headwinds from conflicting attitudes among European governments and various EU agencies over how to support the program, as well as doubts about whether Brussels can make more appealing offers to partner countries than China does.

A bridge of a highway project in Montenegro just north of Podgorica that was built by Chinese companies and financed by a Chinese-state loan. The venture cost $1 billion and put the Balkan country into debt distress in 2021.
A bridge of a highway project in Montenegro just north of Podgorica that was built by Chinese companies and financed by a Chinese-state loan. The venture cost $1 billion and put the Balkan country into debt distress in 2021.

“Global Gateway is like so many other EU initiatives -- a good idea, but it’s ultimately about ‘repackaging’ old money and, as always, making it complicated by having 10 or so different portfolios instead of just one big pot of cash,” an EU diplomat who requested anonymity in order to speak to the media told RFE/RL.

The diplomat added that “of course” Global Gateway is a “competitor to BRI but we don’t say that out loud” because then it limits the appeal for partner countries to cut deals with programs by making it appear that cooperation comes with “strings attached.”

New Deals, Internal Questions

At the summit in Brussels, von der Leyen looked to frame Global Gateway as a sustainable way to build infrastructure over the long-term, saying that “no country should be faced with a situation in which the only option to finance its essential infrastructure is to sell its future.”

EU officials unveiled a slate of new agreements that includes deals on critical raw materials with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia, as well as cooperation on clean energy with Bangladesh, Cape Verde, Namibia, the Philippines, Tanzania, and Vietnam.

The summit also saw a 12-million-euro ($12.6 million) grant provided to Moldova to build new rail lines, a new agreement to support Turkmenistan’s entry into the World Trade Organization, and a 30-million-euro ($31.6 million) investment to advance vocational education and training in Tajikistan. Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin also led a delegation to Brussels that pitched the Central Asian country’s hydropower sector to investors as part of a broader green energy transition for the region.

Other smaller-scale deals were inked with Armenia to invest 10 million euros ($10.5 million) in education and with Georgia in the form of a 16-million-euro ($16.8 million) grant to improve safety along the country’s East-West highway, which forms the backbone of Tbilisi’s connectivity ambitions along the Black Sea and has mostly been built by Chinese constructions firms.

This slew of deals marked a notable start for Global Gateway, another EU diplomat told RFE/RL.

“The concept is genuinely something the EU can offer to the global arena,” the diplomat noted, adding that the program needs to focus more on being “more visible.”

“We are the biggest development cooperation donor in the world, but who knows this?” the diplomat remarked.

'A Strange Beast'

Another EU diplomat expressed concern over the seemingly low-level political representation at the Global Gateway summit.

Heads of state from Armenia, Comoros, Namibia, Mauritania, Senegal, and Somalia attended the event, along with prime ministers from Albania, Bangladesh, Cape Verde, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Georgia, Moldova, Morocco, Rwanda, and Serbia.

But many EU countries did not send their top officials to attend the gathering, with Germany represented by its climate secretary and Denmark and France by their development secretaries. Italy, meanwhile, did not send any representatives.

“[Global Gateway] is a strange beast,” the diplomat said. “Its intentions are serious and laudable, but look at the attendance list and you'll know enough. Quite a few non-EU leaders but hardly anyone from our side.”

An EU Alternative?

Whether Global Gateway can wrangle enough internal support to deliver tangible results on the ground will be central to its success, Andreea Brinza, the co-founder of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific, told RFE/RL.

“For the moment, Global Gateway is only a slogan,” she said. “[It’s] a brand that wraps up very well the EU’s narrative for [development] -- unfortunately, it doesn’t yet have substance.”

China’s BRI has faced scandals and pushback in recent years due to environmental damage, extensive borrowing, and contract disputes. A study by AidData Lab at the College of William and Mary in Virginia found that 35 percent of BRI projects suffered from corruption scandals, labor violations, environmental hazards, and public protests.

World leaders, including China’s Xi Jinping (second right) and Russia’s Vladimir Putin (second left), wave for a group photo at the third Belt and Road Initiative Forum in Beijing on October 18.
World leaders, including China’s Xi Jinping (second right) and Russia’s Vladimir Putin (second left), wave for a group photo at the third Belt and Road Initiative Forum in Beijing on October 18.

But BRI has also so far created targeted offers in a seemingly attractive manner for governments, despite its controversies. It has also benefited from quick implementation due to the role of Chinese state companies and lenders that follow directives from the Communist Party leadership.

Romana Vlahutin, a distinguished fellow at the German Marshall Fund and the former EU special envoy for connectivity, told RFE/RL that Global Gateway currently lacks “a clear strategic vision on how it will contribute to the creation of new diversified and resilient value chains.”

She added that one of the biggest obstacles facing the venture is how to incentivize private markets across the bloc and the West at large to invest in the types of projects that could have a transformative impact.

“It’s essential for countries to have the possibility to make a choice on what's best for them,” Vlahutin said. “If there are only Chinese offers on the market, it means there is no choice. This must change.”

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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