EU’s Global Gateway ‘another rubber check’ from West
Bloc’s feeble credentials hurt credibility of infrastructure plan
Published: Dec 01, 2021 10:28 PM
(From left) President of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen, US President Joe Biden and European Council President Charles Michel arrive for the EU-US summit at the European Union headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday. Photo: AFP

(From left) President of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen, US President Joe Biden and European Council President Charles Michel arrive for the EU-US summit at the European Union headquarters in Brussels on June 15,2021. Photo: AFP

The EU on Wednesday launched a new connectivity initiative called the Global Gateway, aiming to mobilize 300 billion euros ($339 billion) in infrastructure outlays by 2027, in another attempt to counter the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The EU's Global Gateway is essentially a new case of the West's endless moves - right on the heels of the US-led G7 initiate known as the Build Back Better World (B3W) - to seize the ground in moral terms as such BRI counter-initiatives that tout higher standards and values-based cooperation are de facto rubber checks, international affairs observers said. 

They cited the EU's feeble governing credentials and economic slowdown as undercutting the credibility of its new infrastructure strategy. 

Fake moral heights 

In an effort to justify the infrastructure investment proposal that intends to boost links in digital, energy and transport as well as strengthen health, education and research systems, a European Commission announcement on its website said, "The EU will offer not only solid financial conditions for partners, bringing grants, favorable loans, and budgetary guarantees to de-risk investments and improve debt sustainability - but also promote the highest environmental, social and strategic management standards."

The infrastructure strategy's implicit BRI rival target, as shown by its self-touted standards and values, builds on the West's never-ceasing efforts to portray their BRI version as superior in moral terms, experts said, noting that such hypocrisy would by no means mask similar pushes that are born to be unviable.

With the Global Gateway, the EU, moving alongside the US, is orchestrating a push for their voices to be heard and followed in a global race to set trends and standards in the environment and social activities, Gao Lingyun, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

"We will support smart investments in quality infrastructure, respecting the highest social and environmental standards, in line with the EU's democratic values and international norms and standards,"  European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was quoted as saying in the Wednesday announcement. 

When the EU announced in mid-September that it would implement the Global Gateway, von der Leyen said that the connectivity strategy is envisioned to be turned into a trusted brand around the world.

Similarly, the guiding principles of the US-led B3W include values-driven, good governance and strong governance, and climate-friendliness, read a White House statement in June.

The EU made it clear in the Wednesday statement that the Global Gateway and the US initiative B3W "will mutually reinforce each other."

The much smaller Global Gateway, compared with the B3W initiative which aims to narrow the $40-plus trillion worth of infrastructure needed in the developing world by 2035, is some sort of allegiance the EU swears to the US, Gao said.

It could be the case that the EU is betting on the new infrastructure push to divert public attention away from its failed response to the coronavirus, which has been exacerbated by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, he added.

The Omicron variant, originally detected in South Africa, poses a "high to very high risk" to Europe, the European Center for Disease Control warned Friday.

Rubber checks

For the new connectivity strategy to not once again fade into obscurity, the EU will have to prove its prowess in funding various projects under the Global Gateway, largely beyond the bloc's financing capabilities, analysts said.

The Global Gateway, according to the announcement, builds on the 2018 EU-Asia connectivity strategy, among several other connectivity partnerships. The EU will resort to its European Fund for Sustainable Development Plus, the financing arm of its external investment plan, that could make available "up to 135 billion euros in guaranteed investments for infrastructure projects between 2021 and 2027," the bloc announced Wednesday, in addition to up to 18 billion euros in grants from the EU budget.

Other than that, up to 145 billion euros in planned investment are expected from European financial and development finance institutions. 

Albeit smaller than the B3W, that still suggests the bloc will be banking on unspecified financial and development bodies to bankroll a large portion of the push, in a similarly infeasible attempt reminiscent of the B3W, experts said.

It took the Biden administration months of thorny negotiations to have a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill - to be implemented in phases over eight years -get passed by the House recently, rendering the gigantic $40 trillion B3W plan almost unimaginable.

Factoring in pressure faced by the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank (ECB) to ramp up plans to normalize monetary policy at their meetings in mid-December, it becomes increasingly infeasible for such external investment bills to come into fruition.

"In the Eurozone, Germany's incoming chancellor Olaf Scholz and outgoing Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann sent strong signals for the ECB to prioritize price stability again instead of focusing on policy to fund indebted countries," economists at DBS said in a research report sent to the Global Times on Wednesday. 

The regulatory and economic fundamentals of the EU, Chinese experts said, make the continent fundamentally unviable to implement the infrastructure strategy as something more than a rubber check.

The Chinese economy, poised to overtake the EU's by the end of the year, has proven its ability to delivery BRI projects over the past eight years since the BRI's advent, experts said, betting on the Chinese economy's strength and institutional prowess to honor inclusive and transparent BRI promises to continue the BRI's trail.

In the first half of the year, China's GDP expanded by 12.7 percent to 53.2 trillion yuan ($8.2 trillion), official data showed. This suggests the amount is closing in on the EU's GDP of $8.33 trillion, media reported, paving the way for full-year figures to exceed the EU's.

Feeble regimes 

The EU is a loosely-bound grouping, with the distribution of national interests within the 27-member bloc fairly divided and the continuity of policies often in doubt, observers said, saying that the group's infrastructure plan is more prone to fail. 

"The Global Gateway plan should be effective during the term of the current European Council. But there is no guarantee as to whether it will move forward in the next term," Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

Compared with China's political and policy stability, doubts needs to be put on the long-term nature and sustainability of this EU program, Cui said, noting that China has already proven its leadership in long-term international projects for developing countries in programs such as the Asian Development Bank-funded projects.

Observers noted that unlike China, the EU's original intention for this project was to confront China rather than to provide real support to developing countries.

While the B3W expects to be global in scope, ranging from Latin America and the Caribbean to Africa and the Indo-Pacific, the Global Gateway strategy has plans to back projects spanning Eastern and Southern Europe, Africa, Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific, media reports said.

The vision, dreamy as it seems, stands in contrast with the bloc's poor capability to turn its vision into reality.

Put in perspective, the EU proposed a transport, energy and digital infrastructure plan linking Asia and the bloc in September 2018, touted as the continent's answer to the BRI.  

More than three years since, the plan, underpinned by a proposed 60 billion euro fund that could raise over 300 billion euros in 2021-27, has become almost invisible, in a striking sign of the bloc's weakness to set its vision in motion.