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4 Lost Years: How the EU Fumbled Its Response to China’s Belt and Road With Global Gateway Strategy


EU leaders will gather in Brussels this week to toast their flagship infrastructure drive Global Gateway, launched to much fanfare in 2021 as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

But internal documents and conversations with 10 sources involved in the EU’s infrastructure discussions reveal a bureaucracy that fought tooth and nail against using connectivity as a foreign policy tool.

A months-long investigation paints an unflattering picture of European Commission infighting, turf wars and inaction that jars with the muscular rhetoric presented by its leader, Ursula von der Leyen.

For von der Leyen, Global Gateway embodies a new, geopolitical EU that is ready to face an increasingly intensive competition with China, epitomised by Beijing’s massive belt and road infrastructure plan, which has just celebrated its first decade.

Documents seen by the South China Morning Post, however, shed light on conflicting European attitudes over how best to deal with the implications of Beijing’s growing influence in the developing world.

One document in particular, dated October 2020, shows the commission spurning a concrete proposal to compete with China – in part out of fear of “sending the wrong signal” to Beijing.

The rejected proposal contained much of the same language and rationale that would go on to underpin Global Gateway, the EU’s economic security strategy, and its more robust trade policy.

The document – written in the depths of the pandemic – looks prescient in light of the West’s subsequent clamour to wean itself off its dependencies on China. Yet, it was torpedoed by the European Commission, the union’s powerful civil service.

The proposal wanted to use connectivity to bolster “EU economic security and resilience”, to “increase EU influence over global norms and standards setting”, and to “shorten and diversify value chains and reduce dependencies”.

It wanted to replace Brussels’ Asia-focused 2018 connectivity plan with a global “foreign policy tool to protect and project the EU’s political, economic and security interests”, and “project a strong and competitive Europe”.

The response to the document supported the 2018 plan that was already on life support. “The growing importance of Asian (in particular Chinese) investments is a strategic issue for the EU and the political message should be carefully calibrated … a new strategy would send the wrong signal in that respect,” it said.

“The focus should be on fully and effectively implementing it … otherwise we would be sending the wrong message and run the risk to implicitly consider the 2018 communication a failure.”

Bureaucrats also wanted to avoid stoking internal rivalries. According to the rejection note, the new plan would “only deepen divergences” between the EU’s diplomatic arm – the EU External Action Service (EEAS) – and the departments that would eventually help to run Global Gateway which “do not support a new communication”.

Another document, dated September 2020, shows that some officials who would become key figures in Global Gateway fought against a new connectivity plan from the outset.

Source: South China Morning Post

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