The European Union's competition with China's Belt and Road will heat up early next year — with top officials convinced that the new flagship infrastructure projects would offer the developing countries a viable alternative.
EU officials responsible for the Global Gateway initiative are finalizing details for the selected projects, amid reports that Beijing is slowing investment approvals due to the sluggish global economy.
Over the last decade, Beijing has vastly developed networks of trade, transport hubs and energy routes under the Belt and Road initiative, while Huawei Technologies and other Chinese tech companies have invested heavily in the digital infrastructure of countries in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called at a recent meeting to bring visibility to the scheme, which aims at mobilizing up to €300 billion in public and private funds by 2027 to finance EU infrastructure projects abroad.
"We want to position Europe in a more competitive international environment. Global Gateway is therefore also about delivering visible results on the ground," she told officials in charge of the initiative, according to excerpts of her remarks seen by POLITICO.
"We suffer from a lack of visibility and recognition," she added. "We remain very fragmented between various Team Europe operators, and we still shy away from delivering visible hard infrastructure projects."
Citing a survey, von der Leyen said: "When asked in 2020 which partner had the most positive influence on their countries, only 10 percent of Africans mentioned the EU. Forty-seven percent said China."
The remarks come on top of criticism that the West has repeatedly promised to challenge China's Belt and Road investments, but that the effort is too fragmented and slow.
In a joint interview with POLITICO, the EU's top civil servants in foreign policy and international development vowed that the EU would present a credible, competitive alternative to the Belt and Road.
"Once we will have rolled out much more substantially the concept of Global Gateway," it will prove to be an "attractive" option — "exactly as Belt and Road has been seen with all the negativity, if I may, with all the problems that it was creating," said Stefano Sannino, secretary general of the European External Action Service.
Koen Doens, the European Commission's director general for international partnerships, echoed the optimism. "Precisely the idea of now choosing a number of Global Gateway projects that we can put in the shopping window is to show how to a certain extent, it's also different ... Quantity matters, but quality matters as well," he said.
A concrete example is the EU's partnership with Namibia, which is key to Brussels' search for more sources of renewable energy and raw materials. The partnership will develop infrastructure to produce green hydrogen for export via the port of Walvisbaai, as well as local training and cooperation on research and innovation. "It perfectly merges what Namibia considers as being its strategic interest with what Europe considers as being a very important strategic investment for us," Doens added.
For the EU — and especially Doens' department — Global Gateway marked a paradigm shift. Traditionally, the bloc has focused on aid in its partnerships with developing countries. Making strategic investments, on the other hand, involves identifying Europe's needs, involving the private sector and a mindset to actively compete with other powers like China. That required a shift, Doens said, "not just in Brussels, but also in the other capitals of Team Europe."
The EU's external action service is not in the lead for Global Gateway. But Doens and Sannino shrugged off rumors about intra-institutional competition on the project, and their joint interview sends that message both internally and externally. "It has always been my philosophy: we work together, we don't work against [each other]," Sannino said.