As with many of the policies explicitly aimed at demonstrating the geopolitical nature of the European Commission headed by Ursula Von der Leyen, the 2021 EU’s Joint Communication launching Global Gateway as a new approach to international cooperation does not mention China. To most observers, however, the policy was a clear attempt to provide an alternative investment platform to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched in 2013. As one commentator put it, with Global Gateway, “Europe wants to present a higher-quality, more sustainable and more values-driven alternative.” Last autumn, the comparison between the two was almost deliberately invited when high-level BRI and Global Gateway forums were organized within a week of each other with similar and overlapping participation by heads of state from beneficiary countries in the Global South. 

Much of the commentary around Global Gateway has judged it on its own terms; for example, assessing how much of it is new and how much a simple rebranding of existing EU cooperation policies. However, in a geopolitical context, it is more important to look at whether and how Global Gateway is working as an effective response to the BRI. To do this requires looking at how the BRI has evolved since it was launched. 

Christian Leffler
Patrick Costello

Initially launched with great fanfare and with significant funds ($100 billion, mostly in loans, were invested at its peak in 2018), a reassessment, especially after the Chinese economy was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, has led to a reduction in the levels of investment. Concurrently, concerns in participating countries about the risk of unsustainable debt arising from BRI projects have replaced initial gleeful satisfaction at escaping the strictures on political principles and structural reforms accompanying similar Western funding.

In the last two years, the BRI has been built on as well as gradually been eclipsed by a trio of interlocking new policy initiatives by China: the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, and the Global Civilizational Initiative. These form an ambitious attempt by Beijing to take the lead in the creation of a parallel new world order based on very different values from those of the West. The emphasis is on economic development, noninterference, and equality, including cultural equality between nations.

Unsurprisingly support to and the promotion of democracy and human rights do not feature in these initiatives. Beijing’s reinvented multilateralism builds on the economic and political linkages developed through the initial BRI investments. In other words, in the competition between China and the West, the former seems to be more focused today on the competition of ideas and models than on winning hearts and minds through the development of infrastructure. This new approach is cheaper for the overstretched Chinese economy, and it may now appear more palatable and less threatening to countries in the Global South.

Assessing Global Gateway in the light of these developments suggests a rather different reading of it, with important policy implications for the next European Commission. In theory, Global Gateway is a values-driven project; the 2021 Joint Communication refers to principles for investment, starting with democratic values, good governance, equal partnerships, and green and clean investment. Global Gateway is explicitly presented as fully aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There is also no doubt that, for example, if it is competing with China for the provision of digital infrastructure, the EU’s competitiveness will rest on the promise of the introduction of a network that is designed to protect people from surveillance and other online abuses of human rights. Global Gateway is thus indeed values-driven in the sense that its investment offer has values embedded in it. 

However, in practice, the increasing focus on a limited number of big infrastructural priorities is at the expense of the EU’s long-standing work to support fundamental rights, democracy, and governance as well as to alleviate poverty. In the current midterm review of the EU’s external financial instruments, pressure is being brought to bear to reduce explicitly values-driven spending in order to increase funds for big infrastructure projects. 

This approach is highlighted in the recently leaked briefing for the next European commissioner for international partnerships, which makes the case for replacing the EU’s development policy (and even its foreign policy) with an upgraded Global Gateway. The briefing refers to addressing the “battle of offers” with others (read China) through partnerships on green energy, critical raw materials, and digital and transport connectivity. It also proposes reducing the priorities for multilateral development efforts to education, health, and climate and environment, with no reference to the SDGs or to supporting democracy and governance. 

There is a case to be made for a more coherent and focused approach to the EU’s relations with its African, Asian, and Latin American partners that brings together the full range of its policies to develop a competitive offer. This would strengthen the EU’s efforts to become a global geopolitical actor. But it is a grave mistake to believe that this can be achieved only by ditching efforts to support democracy and human rights, or to work on poverty alleviation, as though these commitments were a hindrance to the EU’s ability to be truly competitive in a multipolar world. Equally, the absence of a clear, strategic foreign policy framework within which Global Gateway actions would be situated would weaken rather than strengthen the suggested approach, not least in the eyes of the member states. 

As China’s new global initiatives show, the EU will win the battle of offers only if it is also able to win the battle of ideas about how the global system should be organized. The EU’s soft power globally has always rested on its commitments to democracy and human rights as well as to its multilateral efforts in pursuit of sustainable development. This is particularly important for winning over popular opinion, and not just governments, in countries around the world: polls show very clearly that majorities there support these values, and engagement with and consultation of local civil society has allowed the EU to build broad support for many development projects. Where the EU has been inconsistent in the application of these principles, it has paid a high political price. If it now drops them in the misguided belief that this will make it more competitive, it will be dropping the very things that will make it simultaneously attractive and competitive in the next stage of the global contest with China.

In sum, Global Gateway is well designed to counter the BRI rather in the same way that France’s Maginot Line was designed in response to Germany’s offensive in the First World War: it is an excellent strategy for fighting the last war that risks fundamentally jeopardizing the ability to fight the next one.

Authors

Patrick Costello served as an EU official 1996-2023 working in the European Parliament, European Commission and EEAS and served in a number of private offices including those of Chris Patten, Vice-President Margot Wallström (as deputy Head of Cabinet), EP President Josep Borrell (as diplomatic adviser) and Karmenu Vella (as Head of Cabinet). Other jobs have included EEAS head of division for democracy and electoral observation, head of division for the Middle East and deputy to the Chair of the Political and Security Committee. 

He has recently also joined the advisory boards of EPD, Election-Watch.EU and is a senior adviser to the Kofi Annan Foundation. He was educated at Manchester Grammar School and Oxford University.

Christian Leffler was Deputy Secretary General responsible for global issues from 2015 until his retirement in March 2020. He started his career in the Swedish Foreign Service in 1980. After joining the European Commission in 1996 he served in various services and Cabinets until he became Managing Director for the Americas in the newly established EEAS in  2010.

Since he retired Christian Leffler is active on governance and democracy issues, as a member of the board of governors of the European Endowment for Democracy as well as the advisory boards of International IDEA and the European Partnership for Democracy. He was educated at UWC Atlantic, LSE and the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva.