Global Gateway: The EU’s Answer to the BRI?

By Connor Bryant, Policy Briefs Writer

Image source: Euronews

Late last year, the European Union announced a plan to counter Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): Global Gateway, a €300 billion infrastructure spending plan that aims to expand EU supply chains across the globe, particularly in Africa.

Global Gateway was established under the shadow of worsening China-EU tensions. Once relatively apathetic towards the competition between Beijing and Washington, Brussels has become more resistant to Chinese influence as EU member states like Lithuania are sanctioned by Beijing for developing stronger ties with Taiwan. Along with American-led initiatives like the Blue Dot Network and Build Back Better World, Global Gateway is part of Europe’s effort to combat the influence of the BRI.

Much of the strategic threat posed by the BRI comes in the form of debt traps. Beijing has often been accused of using the BRI as a form of debt trap diplomacy which exploits countries that can’t repay their loans by seizing the very infrastructure China financed. A revealing example was Sri Lanka ceding a port China built for 99 years after Colombo couldn’t repay Chinese loans.

The EU hopes to capitalize on its transparent reputation in order to offer Global Gateway as an alternative for developing countries. The threat of debt traps doesn’t exist for countries opting to contract with Global Gateway as it does with the BRI. When comparing the two projects, Francesca Ghiretti of the Mercator Institute of China Studies told FRANCE24 that BRI funding comes mainly in the form of loans, while Global Gateway “will rely on both public and private sector investment,” instead of relying on the Chinese government-run corporations. Speaking more directly, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that the EU wanted to “create links and not dependences.”

Europe also wants to emphasize the quality of Global Gateway as opposed to the quantity of the BRI. Many BRI projects remain undeveloped or abandoned. Beijing routinely invests in countries with poor credit ratings, and bribery and corruption often accompany BRI projects. By contrast, Brussels aims to invest in higher-quality infrastructure.

At first glance, Global Gateway seems like the clearly superior alternative to BRI, and the emphasis it places on Africa could challenge Chinese influence in the region and accelerate its development. But one can’t help but think that this is a tepid response to the colossal Chinese project. At best, Global Gateway appears to be designed to mitigate the influence of the BRI rather than to serve as a true alternative.

This merits only so much criticism, however. The liberal and democratic structure of the EU prevents it from assisting governments with dubious human rights records or funding projects that are unlikely to be repaid. Insofar as the often-corrupt governments of developing countries are reluctant to implement the EU’s governance conditions in order to obtain investment, this might enable the spread of China’s influence (which doesn’t operate under the same constraints). But the transparency and quality services that such conditions entail are also the EU’s greatest strength.

Moreover, the BRI is arguably one of the prime foreign policy priorities of China, while the EU has more immediate problems closer to home, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Beijing is also willing to spend more than a trillion dollars on the BRI, more than three times what Brussels is poised to spend on Global Gateway.

However, the competition posed by Global Gateway might lead to reform of the BRI and may incentivise Beijing to operate in a way that’s more favorable to the countries taking out loans from China. If competitors to China’s project can’t defeat it outright, they can at least influence it in a way that is more favorable to the transatlantic alliance and the governments taking out loans by lessening the probability of a debt trap.

Another factor in favor of Global Gateway is its emphasis on Europe’s immediate neighborhood, as opposed to the truly global BRI. Global Gateway might not be able to compete with the BRI on a global scale, but it may well out-compete China in Africa and the Balkans.

Overall, Global Gateway is a step in the right direction, and Washington would do well to support its European partners in this endeavor.

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