Written by Elisa Lenker The article was first published on January 28, 2022 on STEAR
President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen just announced the launch of Global Gateway, an EU plan for major investment in infrastructure development around the world, focusing on low and middle-income countries. This 300 billion EUR initiative has been called a countermove to the decade-old Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (European Commission, 2021). There is much discussion regarding whether the Chinese Communist Party should feel threatened by this initiative. But should they? This article explores the core ideas behind Global Gateway and addresses how and if this is a challenge to the BRI. It also analyses the possible outcomes of this ambitious project, connecting the pieces of a multilayered discussion.
Introducing the Global Gateway
In December 2021, the European Commission and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy made a public statement about a new European strategy to “boost smart, clean and secure links in digital, energy and transport and strengthen health, education and research systems across the world” (European Commission, 2021). Under the name of Global Gateway, it would mobilise up to 300 billion EUR between 2021 and 2027 in hopes to build sustainable connections, underpin global recovery, and promote competitiveness and global supply chains. It represents an effort to account for the needs of partner countries as well as gain strategic benefits through the development of major infrastructure (European Commission, 2021).
The Global Gateway Strategy is a template for how Europe can build more resilient connections with the world,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission (European Commission, n.d.).
Through a Team Europe approach, Global Gateway is a long-term project to create “smart, clean and secure EU investments in quality infrastructure,” aiming at “connecting goods, people and services around the world in a sustainable way” (European Commission, n.d.). No doubt ambitious, this initiative abides by international norms and standards, democratic values, and transparent, green business practises. To achieve this, the EU and member states, in collaboration with financial institutions such as the European Investment Bank, will work to mobilise private sector investment into major deals with special emphasis on the digital sector, climate and energy, transport, health, education and research. The EU would, in exchange, provide financial tools that would level the playing field abroad (European Commission, 2021).
This project would build upon previous partnerships such as the 2018 EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy, or the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, in alignment with the 2021 commitment of the G7 leaders to strengthen sustainable infrastructure partnerships. The EU expressed its commitment to “like-minded partners to promote sustainable connectivity investments” (European Commission, 2021), leaving open the question as to how this may overlap with China’s own geopolitical agenda.
A threat to China’s BRI?
Global Gateway could be considered a democracy and transparency-oriented alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (Holslag, 2021). The striking similarities have prompted newspapers such as CNN (Cooban, 2021), the BBC (Parker, 2021), or France24 (Seibt, 2021) to interpret this geopolitical move as a response to China, whose influence has been consistently growing. It is no surprise that the Chinese state-owned newspaper Global Times referred to this initiative as an EU move to push forward its “democratic agenda,” and that in the end “China is putting in real money, while Europe’s plans are still at the stage of intention” (Global Times, 2021).
To the question on whether Global Gateway is a response to the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, the European Commission stated that they are offering “an innovative choice for global infrastructure development, based on the needs of our partners” (European Commission, 2021). They claim to be addressing the global investment gap under fair and favourable terms for all parties, but this project would require the joint effort of other like-minded partners (ibid, 2021). The Commission believes that Global Gateway will indeed complement the G7’s Build Back Better World initiative, as well as support the objectives set at COP26 and the Sustainable Development Goals (ibid, 2021). Notably, there is no direct mention of the Belt and Road Initiative in current EC communications regarding the Global Gateway (ibid, 2021).
Despite the competitive framing between the Global Gateway and the BRI, there are no reasons to believe that these two initiatives are directly mutually harmful. Although there are valid concerns over the low quality of some projects, or the lack of sustainability, China has a decade of experience in building global infrastructure and has increasingly improved the quality of the BRI (Kliem, 2021). It is in the transatlantic and Japanese responses to the BRI that one can find their interest to compete and emulate the Chinese successful connectivity investment policies (Mardell, 2022). Without media or political antagonism to the BRI, this could in turn become an opportunity for the EU to raise the bar in the global connectivity field and perhaps synergise efforts with China (Kliem, 2021). The “pivot to Asia” approach is a matter of concern for the EU too, and Global Gateway could perhaps further increase its influence in the Asian continent. Victor Gao, Vice-President of the Centre for China and Globalisation, stated that “if Global Gateway is truly meant for building up connectivity and infrastructure in developing countries […], the more the better,” and that “it is very much welcome” (Al Jazeera English, 2021). He expressed his wish for this to be a competition on equal terms, not a project with an ideological-agenda (ibid, 2021). Whether Global Gateway and BRI should be seen as rivals, or as mutually benefitting projects as The Diplomat suggests (ibid, 2021), remains to be seen in the long term.
Nevertheless, the underlying political principles Global Gateway stands for are not necessarily in line with what China wants (Al Jazeera English, 2021). Presiden Von der Leyen stated in 2020 that “where China is concerned, we, as the European Union, know exactly on what side of the table we are sitting. We are sitting on the side of the democracies” (Von der Leyen as found in Bloomberg, 2021). With regards to Global Gateway, the EC Commission President ended her public statement by highlighting the democracy, value-driven nature of the project, an alternative to the “limited” investment choices (Von der Leyen, 2021). The undertone of Global Gateway, as well as Europe’s current geopolitics, and the competitive similarities between the BRI and Global Gateway does suggest they are destined contenders.
What can we really expect from the Global Gateway?
There is still a gap between rhetoric and realisation, and giving a proper assessment of Global Gateway is nearly an impossible task at such an early stage. The first overview of such an ambitious endeavour has been put under the microscope by many experts, many of whom believe it to be a rebranding campaign for the European Commission (Moreschi, 2021). According to EU data, they gave “almost as much in grants between 2013 and 2018 as China did for loans” in BRI projects (Mardell, 2022). If this is the case, it might be that the investments on connectivity and the Global Gateway do not signify a large increase when compared to previous grants (ibid, 2022).
The Centre for Global Development’s analysts Mikaela Gavas and Samuel Pleeck believe that “while packaged and presented as a real competitor to China in infrastructure, Global Gateway appears to be a paper tiger” (Gavas & Pleeck, 2021). They point out the lack of clarity in terms of management, finance, and strategic guidance, claiming that the 300 billion EUR are made up of a “mixture of existing commitments” from the 2021-2027 budget (ibid, 2021). Indeed, other media outlets have said that the Global Gateway “starts from a rather naive view of the geo-economy,” forgetting that one of the key reasons for the success of the BRI is the Chinese market’s influence over the supply chain industry (Holslag, 2021).
Nevertheless, the EU’s efforts to invest in connectivity, meaning “the physical and institutional connective infrastructure of ports, roads, fibre optic cables, customs arrangements, and so on” (Mardell, 2022), are not a bad idea. The EU has already been contributing to global connectivity through its member states for years, and this is yet again proof of the importance they put on it. Instead, this project could become a way to “internalise the logic of strategic competition” in the decision making process and allow the EU to increase its visibility in the geopolitical landscape (ibid, 2022).
Moreschi (2021) also highlighted the absence of “fresh cash” into Global Gateway and warned about potential operational problems of the multi-level and decentralised “Team Europe” approach, but argues that Global Gateway’s “criticism needs to be situated in the larger process of European foreign policy integration” (2021). Interestingly, they write that this initiative is an “exercise of agency from the European Commission,” an element of the EU foreign policy integration, which has the potential to draw attention to the issue of connectivity (ibid, 2021). The way Global Gateway is established, away from the “bureaucratic power struggles” of Brussels, will allow the Commission to exercise its foreign policy agenda and promote its own priorities, with global connectivity at the top of the list (ibid, 2021). Hoslag (2021) also stated that Global Gateway could motivate member states and private enterprises to engage in investment deals. After a heavy blow to the European economy due to COVID-19, this could be perceived as an invigorating push for investors.
From the partner countries’ perspective, a number of matters are also noteworthy. The question remains as to whether Global Gateway will address low and middle-income priorities as defined by the target countries, whether it might create illicit financial flows, or whether it will actually build on the comparative advantage Europe has both in terms of resources and knowledge transfer. Will Global Gateway tackle the pharmaceutical and vaccine shortage in African countries? More importantly, Global Gateway could put some target countries in the middle of a geopolitical Cold Connectivity War between Europe/the West and China (as suggested by Zainab Usman in Al Jazeera English, 2021).
It is indeed difficult to assess the efficacy of Global Gateway, its outcome dependent on many other variables. Although some of the concerns are valid, there is not enough information to build a strong case against it, or even label it as an all-out move against China. The weight of this initiative relies on other pieces of the puzzle and the way in which it will be laid out, leaving the outcome perhaps a re-branding dead-end, or perhaps an opportunity to boost the EU’s geostrategic influence and promote global connectivity.
Al Jazeera English. (2021). Can EU’s Global Gateway strategy compete with Beijing? | Inside Story . https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2duQTNVRfRs
Bloomberg. (2021). EU President von der Leyen Says ‘China Is a Systemic Rival’ . https://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2021-01-20/commission-president-on-eu-u-s-relations-with-china-post-investment-agreement-video
Cooban, A. (2021). Europe unveils its $340 billion answer to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. CNN Business. https://edition.cnn.com/2021/12/01/business/global-gateway-eu-china-belt-road/index.html
European Commission. (n.d). Global Gateway. https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/stronger-europe-world/global-gateway_en
European Commission. (2021). Global Gateway: up to €300 billion for the European Union’s strategy to boost sustainable links around the world. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_6433
European Commission. (2021). The Global Gateway. Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions and the European Investment Bank. https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/joint_communication_global_gateway.pdf
European Commission. (2021). Questions and Answers on Global Gateway. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/qanda_21_6434
Gavas, M., and Pleeck, S. (2021). The EU’s Global Gateway Is Not a Groundbreaking Plan for Domination in Global Infrastructure. Centre for Global Development. https://www.cgdev.org/blog/eus-global-gateway-not-groundbreaking-plan-domination-global-infrastructure
Global Times. (2021). 欧盟发布“全球门户”计划，外媒：一大批发展中国家并不期待其鼓吹的“民主议程”！[The EU unveils Global Gateway plan. Foreign media: A lot of developing countries are not looking forward at all to its pro-democracy agenda.] https://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1717968800431018887&wfr=spider&for=pc
Holslag, J. (2021). The EU’s ‘global gateway’ – an answer to China, or a dead-end?. EuObserver. Retrieved from: https://euobserver.com/opinion/153678
Mardell, J. (2022). Global Gateway. International Politik Quarterly. https://ip-quarterly.com/en/global-gateway
Kliem, F. (2021). Europe’s Global Gateway: Complementing or Competing With BRI?. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2021/12/europes-global-gateway-complementing-or-competing-with-bri/
Moreschi, A. (2021). The EU Global Gateway: The narrow path between relevance and invisibility. Observer Research Foundation. https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/the-eu-global-gateway/
Parker, J. (2021). EU launches €300bn bid to challenge Chinese influence. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-59473071
Seibt, S. (2021). Avec “Global Gateway”, l’UE tente de concurrencer les nouvelles routes de la soie chinoises [With its ‘Global Gateway’, EU tries to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative]. France24. https://www.france24.com/fr/asie-pacifique/20211202-avec-son-global-gateway-l-ue-tente-de-concurrencer-les-nouvelles-routes-de-la-soie-chinoises
Von der Leyen, U. (2021). Statement by President von der Leyen on the Global Gateway. European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/STATEMENT_21_6522