In 2021, the European Commission announced “Global Gateway” as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. While aiming towards greater EU autonomy and geopolitical capacity, Global Gateway has little to show for it, despite its ambitious budget of €300 billion. In this article, Florian Klumpp analyses the shortcomings of the European initiative and discusses possible future developments.
Achieving greater strategic autonomy has been an EU objective for quite some time (European Union 2016). European Commission President von der Leyen reemphasized her vision for a confident geopolitical commission after her appointment in 2019 (European Commission 2019, 2). The EU’s interest in strengthening its autonomy was caused not least by an accelerating Sino-US rivalry and a Trump Administration that put transatlantic relations to a stress test. When supply chain dependencies resurfaced during the COVID-19 pandemic, EU Heads of State and Government called for “[a]chieving strategic autonomy while preserving an open economy” (European Council 2020, 1). However, translating ambition into practice has been stifled by differing perspectives in member states on the conception of strategic autonomy and questionable capabilities to realize a greater level of autonomy (Armanini and Esteban 2022, 7; Darnis 2021, 3-4; Leonard 2022).
Against this backdrop, the Commission announced Global Gateway in December 2021 (European Commission 2021b). Designated as a global connectivity strategy, it envisages portraying increased EU autonomy and geopolitical capacity in areas it perceives to be increasingly outstripped by other initiatives, particularly China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (European Commission 2021b, 2). However, following EU High Representative Borell’s (2020) understanding of strategic autonomy and a geopolitical commission as an attempt to increase the EU’s might for independent action and rule shaping regarding security, economy, and technology, this paper argues that Global Gateway in its current form cannot help the EU achieve this goal in the field of infrastructure and connectivity financing to the extent hoped for.
The BRI factor in Global Gateway’s development
Ever since the BRI was launched in 2013, politicians and scholars have been troubled by its openly communicated objectives and its alleged hidden motives (Conway 2022; Grieger 2021 1, 8). Therefore, Global Gateway probably would have never seen the light of day without the BRI. Anyhow, the EU's willingness to incorporate China in EU frameworks has faded. After still being included in the list of possible bilateral cooperation partners in the 2018 EU-ASIA Connectivity Strategy (2018, 7), it was notably absent from the 2021 EU Indo-Pacific Strategy (2021, 12-13). It is worth noting that China was not directly mentioned in the Commission’s joint communication on Global Gateway (European Commission 2021b). However, during its launch, von der Leyen clarified that it is to be a better alternative to Chinese investments, lambasting financial, political, and social consequences of investment choices other than the EU (Rankin 2021).
The difficult search for strategic autonomy
Increasing strategic autonomy beyond Europe’s borders can be considered a major goal of Global Gateway. The Commission attempts to portray the EU as a great power willing to help reduce the massive global infrastructure investment gap projected for 2040 (European Commission 2021b, 1). To achieve this goal, it created a strategy that is hoped to promote a new brand of a uniquely European connectivity financing approach. The most fundamental part of this approach is its values-driven nature emphasizing democracy, human rights, transparency, accountability, good governance, high standards, and equal partnerships as well as economic, environmental, financial, and social sustainability (European Commission 2021b). In addition, Global Gateway sets out to “focus on physical infrastructure […] to strengthen digital, transport and energy networks”, completed by investments in health, education, and research (European Commission 2021b, 1-2, 6-8). Except for the latter two, these self-proclaimed investment priorities are quite evidently addressed to the BRI. To further distinguish itself from other initiatives, Global Gateway stresses the importance of various EU actors and the private sector as part of the so-called Team Europe approach (European Commission 2021b, 2).
However, there are various reasons why Global Gateway in its current form cannot help the EU to markedly increase strategic autonomy. The first aspect worth mentioning here is money. The EU wants to mobilize investments worth €300 billion between 2021 and 2027 (European Commission 2021b, 2). To accumulate this sum, it intends to combine financial resources from the EU, its financial institutions, and national financial and development finance institutions with private sector investments (European Commission 2021b, 2). However, funding for the Global Gateway has been criticized for lacking newly-generated money, instead using repurposed budgets from already existing commitments (Gavas and Pleeck 2021). Moreover, some have argued that €300 billion is just so much when compared to what others have proposed (Conway 2022). At the same time, the EU places more importance on grants and soft loans when compared to the loan-heavy BRI (Tagliapietra 2021). Still, issues for the EU might arise regarding the coordination of stakeholders’ respective priorities or the extent to which it can leverage private capital (Kliem 2021). In conclusion, limited new money, a relatively modest investment target, and traditional problems related to EU complexities may complicate EU ambitions, despite the advantages it might have in sustainability.
Moreover, by placing high relevance on the above-mentioned values, the EU might render itself unable to compete with China in some of Global Gateway’s key interest areas. This is because China places greater importance on providing investments with few strings attached, making clear that “there will be little pressure from the Chinese side to protect human rights, democratic governance or the rule of law” (Ginsburg 2021, 65). Although China paid greater attention to debt sustainability than many credit it for, it has offered huge loans to troubled economies (Sundquist 2021, 12-13,17). The BRI is also characterized by projects dominated by Chinese executors or questionable environmental sustainability, conflicting with the EU’s proclaimed preconditions (Grieger 2021, 2; Politi 2021, 2-3). Yet some countries might therefore prefer to cooperate with China, rather than fulfilling all criteria set by the EU.
It is also questionable whether the EU can play a major role in the five key areas of partnership simply because it is not a frontrunner in all sectors. Take for example the digital sector, where European countries are only secondary actors behind the US and China, making it difficult to “lead the development of digital infrastructures, deploy digital solutions in third countries and frame standards in emerging technologies” (Armanini and Esteban 2022, 7). Accordingly, the EU might find it difficult to translate its intentions into actions and to actively shape standards in rapidly developing industries. Moreover, needing to resort to non-EU firms for cooperation in third countries is problematic in light of strategic autonomy.
The potential of Global Gateway to lead to increased independent action capacity is further limited by similar schemes launched by EU allies. In June this year, US President Biden announced a rebranded Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) at the G7 Leaders’ Summit (White House 2022). Similar to Global Gateway, PGII is to be a values-driven initiative focusing on climate, energy, digital, and health sectors (White House 2022). PGII hopes to generate US$600 billion over the next five years with the help of G7 countries and the EU (White House 2022). President von der Leyen then announced that from now on, Global Gateway will only exist under the roof of PGII (European Commission 2022). PGII is, no question, a positive sign of collaboration of democracies joining forces to provide a greater share of necessary investments. However, it also means that the EU needs to walk back on its desire to achieve greater autonomy in another geopolitically relevant field.
Despite these issues, some aspects might make one more optimistic. The EU is as much a driver of infrastructure investment competition as it is a taker. Global Gateway can help it to become a viable alternative in some places, albeit not to the extent originally hoped for (Karjalainen 2022, 9). Moreover, while not strengthening EU strategic autonomy in a narrow sense, equal-levelled cooperation with other players could help the EU to increase its capacity for independent action and rule shaping. The EU signed its first bilateral connectivity partnership with Japan in 2019, joining forces with a long-time leader in international infrastructure standard-setting (Grieger 2021, 5; Panda 2022). Similarly, the EU signed a similar partnership with India in 2021, though India does not have a comparable standing (Moreschi 2021). Integrating Global Gateway into these bilateral partnerships could help the EU to better achieve its normative approach to connectivity investment.
There are a number of doubts about how well Global Gateway can increase EU strategic autonomy. Accordingly, the EU might have to set its sights low, to increase its leverage in more narrowly defined areas and sectors with less competition. Nevertheless, Global Gateway prevents the EU from falling further back behind, provided it minimizes overlapping with existing mechanisms. Still, the EU should keep a cool head. Evidence for a deliberate Chinese debt-trap diplomacy is not clear-cut and BRI investment has slowed down amid global and domestic problems (China Policy and Asia Society Australia 2022; Jones and Hameiri 2020, 3). If the EU can become bolder through strengthening and complementing Global Gateway or keeps functioning under the wing of more powerful initiatives like PGII remains to be seen.
This article represent the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
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