The EU’s Global Gateway aims to mobilise private investments through existing financial instruments and to apply a new European approach to development in line with the bloc’s geopolitical interests, but two years after its launch major questions remain about whether it is meeting its objectives. The recent leak of an internal document by the Commission raises serious questions about the real intentions behind lofty speeches and declarations. Five concrete suggestions aim at ensuring that the initiative stays true to the EU values that it allegedly seeks to promote.

Debates are intensifying about the EU’s Global Gateway initiative. The Global Gateway promises to mobilise up to €300 billion ($319 billion) in investments between 2021 and 2027 as the linchpin of a new European approach to development. The scheme seeks to integrate existing funding instruments and the Team Europe approach for a “new European Strategy to boost smart, clean and secure links in digital, energy and transport and strengthen health, education and research systems across the world”. Given its funding volume and pronounced geopolitical visibility, Global Gateway is widely seen as a critical initiative for future EU external action.

Viewed from a development perspective, the initiative’s commitment to use aid funds to leverage private investment is important to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, which are unlikely to be met by 2030 with Official Development Aid alone. Viewed from a foreign policy angle, it offers partner countries concrete incentives to counter the significant influence gained by China through its Belt and Road Initiative. Unlike China’s initiative, which obscures its dubious practices and poor human rights record under the guise of non-interference, Global Gateway promises to put a strong emphasis on values, standards, and transparency, placing these elements at the core of its strategy.

Sergio Rodríguez Prieto

Despite the initial scepticism of some observers, who perceived Global Gateway as merely a rebranding exercise rather than a substantial shift in the EU’s operational approach, the EU has now built a portfolio of several flagship projects that confirm the initiative’s transformative potential. Furthermore, Global Gateway has notably enhanced the efficacy of the Team Europe approach by enabling EU member states to strategically position themselves in areas where they can contribute the most value.

However, it remains unclear how Global Gateway funds will be raised and used, and there remain legitimate concerns about the EU’s adherence to its own proclaimed values. In mid-April, a leaked document showed the European Commission calling for the funds to be ‘driven by economic interest and less by narrow and traditional development and foreign policy approaches’ – apparently at odds with the initiative’s core promised rationale. The officials in charge of setting up this new architecture have been focusing on its cornerstone – the involvement of financing institutions and the private sector. Without this precondition, the EU’s leverage capacity would serve no purpose and the initiative would make little sense, so it is understandable to some extent that the top priority for those officials has been to ensure the buy-in of investors. But almost two years into its design and implementation, it is time to consider whether the fundamental motivation behind these commendable efforts to transform Global Gateway from a mere concept into a multi-billion-euro programme is being overlooked.

EU added value

The precarious state of democracy worldwide is extensively documented by reputable actors such as V-Dem, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), and The Economist, to the point that democratic decline can be seen as yet another facet of the polycrisis that is challenging Europe’s influence in international affairs. Against this backdrop, the EU needs to realise that its influence in the global arena is shrinking in parallel to democratic space and should thus consider democracy a public good to be promoted and protected by everyone who enjoys its perks, including the private sector. After all, investors are among the first to benefit from open institutions and the rule of law – as many companies with interests in Russia have learned the hard way.

While not a panacea for all of these issues, Global Gateway has, since its inception, been clear in one aspect: its success will depend not only on its capacity to leverage investments but also on its ability to promote democracy globally. In pursuit of this goal, the initiative’s efforts must go beyond “doing no harm” in contexts of democratic decline; it also needs to set up concrete mechanisms to ensure that its partnerships actively promote democratic values.

To do so, it is paramount for the EU to have a clear understanding of the impact that its support may have on the political economy and democratic processes of its partner countries. In line with the Democratic Diagnostic and the Democracy Reviews that the UK and the US have introduced in their respective programming mechanisms, the EU would clearly benefit from conducting similar analyses in those places that will receive investments, especially now that the so-called 360 approach calls for the structuring of development aid around the Global Gateway flagship projects.

In fact, Global Gateway’s transformative potential also applies to the EU’s own practices and procedures, which will need to evolve if they are to respond to the profound geopolitical implications of this new understanding of development cooperation that tries to reconcile the long-standing dichotomy of interests and values. It is in Europe’s interest to get it right, and to do so the Commission must stay true to its values and put them at the core of its actions by prioritising ends over means and navigating political dark waters without losing its moral compass. Here are five proposals to inform a much-needed debate.

Place transparency at the centre of operations

As Global Gateway’s governance structure approaches completion, it is essential for the Commission to ensure that the initiative becomes “a trusted brand around the world”, a perception that can be attained only by embedding transparency as a key operational principle. A key barrier to transparency thus far has been insufficient clarity, which may account for the scarcity and inadequacy of information available. Besides being a matter of credibility and a way to level the playing field, open and timely information is crucial to coordinate the inputs of the wide diversity of stakeholders involved in such complex projects. Alongside accountability, transparency is the principal safeguard against corruption and the most reliable method of preventing the kind of scandals that could significantly damage the brand’s reputation.

Moreover, transparency is not only about making information accessible but also about ensuring its readability. Regardless of the technical complexity of the projects developed by Global Gateway, it is vital that their objectives and outcomes are communicated in ways that resonate both with their final beneficiaries and with EU taxpayers. The ultimate goal of “connecting goods, people and services around the world” requires the skill to communicate at various levels of understanding and engage with a diverse range of perspectives. Otherwise, equal partnerships can hardly be achieved.

Through strict adherence to its own standards, Global Gateway has the potential to become instrumental in promoting greater transparency in partner countries, aligning with the positive outcomes that EU budget support has produced in many recipient governments thanks to the progressive adoption of sound public financial management. Building on this experience, the European Commission Directorate General for International Partnerships (DG INTPA) could draw inspiration from the eligibility criteria for the disbursement of budget support tranches. Doing so would counter the private sector’s inclination towards confidentiality and ensure the full traceability of public contributions while allowing domestic and international actors to exert oversight and “follow the money”.

Ensure the meaningful participation of civil society

Probably for the reasons described above, the current feeling among civil society organisations (CSOs) about their role in Global Gateway can be summed up as “too little, too late”. Last-minute consultations in the Policy Forum on Development imply that civil society participation remains an afterthought, if not a box to tick. That said, the initial discussions with the forum’s members have called attention to the links between Global Gateway and key development issues, such as shrinking civic space and inequalities, while underscoring the importance of stronger monitoring, transparency, and accountability mechanisms.

More importantly, the dialogue platform that was launched under the lead of European Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen will include other key actors and could trigger a consequential debate on the social and political impacts of certain investments – but only if its workings continue in a true multi-stakeholder fashion and deliver concrete commitments that can be followed through.

Practically speaking, dealing with CSOs and other developmental actors in a separate forum is arguably the best way to keep them away from where real decisions are being made, with no option other than to criticise or rubber-stamp them. This can push CSOs into a “naming and shaming” dynamic with investors who, in turn, may come to view CSOs as simple activists and idealists who “don’t know how things really work”.

Instead of creating an antagonistic dynamic between civil society and the private sector by keeping them in separate decision-making spheres, the commission should establish new dialogue spaces where the various stakeholders who hold a legitimate interest in Global Gateway projects can share their views constructively and equitably. There is no need to start from scratch: established schemes such as the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative or the Fisheries Transparency Initiative provide proven frameworks for multi-stakeholder forums that involve governments, companies, and civil society.

Introduce democratic variables into monitoring and evaluation

According to the most comprehensive analysis of Global Gateway published to date, the initiative still needs “a monitoring and evaluation system with clearly defined performance and results indicators” that “could feed into a periodic reporting system, whereby the European Commission would inform other EU institutions of the [Global Gateway’s] activities and results”. This recommendation is crucial, as it directly relates to “the European Parliament’s democratic and budgetary powers, including its mandate on both external financial instruments and policy issues”.

It is extremely likely that at the time of writing, officials in DG INTPA and the European External Action Service are working on a performance monitoring system in line with the Global Europe Results Framework. This must be a daunting task given the difficulty of evaluating EU financial contributions once they are “blended” with other long-term investments, not to speak of the challenges of capturing the multiple effects that they can produce: Infrastructure can certainly improve human development, enhance sustainable growth, and contribute to digital and green transitions, but not without political consequences. It can also influence social and territorial cohesion, affect the quality of public services, impact electoral processes, and alter citizens’ perceptions of their governments’ ability to deliver. In essence, these projects have the capacity to substantially alter the political landscape in the partner countries and, in some cases, even act as a lifeline to authoritarian regimes.

The political implications of infrastructure projects are especially relevant in regions like Central Asia, which has gained strategic importance as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is garnering considerable attention from the EU at a time when countries in this region are recording a steep decline in their democracy rankings. Consequently, rather than overlooking uncomfortable realities, Global Gateway must be equipped with the necessary tools for assessing the potential impacts of its investments on human rights, civic space, and political freedoms to ensure that EU-funded infrastructure projects do not inadvertently contribute to reinforcing authoritarian regimes and dictatorships.

Once again, there is no need to reinvent existing practices. Instead, the focus should be on leveraging current standards, such as the UN Global Compact, and ensuring linkages and synergies with other EU initiatives like the EU System for an Enabling Environment for Civil Society.

Avoid the pitfalls of top-down planning

Numerous historical examples illustrate how well-intentioned top-down plans, from mono-cropped forests to standardised urban development and rural development programmes, can drastically diverge from their intended outcomes. These situations often arise from projects that, while theoretically appealing, adhere too rigidly to their original frameworks and fail to integrate practical insights gained through democratic planning and implementation. It should now be clear that complex initiatives that aim to shape people’s lives can succeed only if they incorporate the three elements discussed above: transparency, participation, and oversight.

In that sense, the implementation of democratic planning practices is not solely a question of inclusion or fairness but, fundamentally, one of effectiveness. Engaging the final beneficiaries, as both users and citizens, often requires the involvement of civil society but can also be achieved through other suitable means. There is no shortage of democratic innovations around the world, many of which are occurring in countries that are typically classed as authoritarian – a fact that illustrates how even in closed environments, there are still opportunities for citizen participation in public affairs. Drawing on this dynamic, Global Gateway should employ participatory mechanisms to gather feedback on its projects to enable the implementation of corrective measures or enhancements as needed. Although these mechanisms may initially seem time intensive, they are likely to result in significant time and resource savings in the long term.

Indeed, streamlining participation along the whole project cycle would not only ensure compliance with the principle of ownership; it would also contribute to the social, environmental, and political sustainability of Global Gateway flagship projects, thereby boosting their resilience and helping them to anticipate and mitigate unintended effects. To that end, a set of guidelines on citizen participation, based on past experiences and lessons learned, would be instrumental in involving end users and the appropriate levels of government into multi-stakeholder sounding boards tasked with providing first-hand feedback on the impact of each project.

Do not neglect democratic infrastructure

A notable aspect of Global Gateway is its focus on “both hard and soft infrastructure” to encompass investments “in an enabling environment guaranteeing a level playing field”. This means that the initiative must extend beyond the construction of physical infrastructure like roads, cables, and solar panels and also involve the co-creation of democratic digital infrastructure, support responsive political actors, and assist local communities in addressing climate and environmental crises. Both the soft and the hard dimension are essential and should go hand in hand; their integration is crucial to prevent unintended consequences, such as undermining parliamentary budgetary powers, causing forced internal displacements, or enabling the political use of internet shutdowns, to name just a few potential inadvertent ramifications of Global Gateway’s interventions.

These examples highlight some of the possible adverse effects that some infrastructure projects may have on people and institutions, but there is also a wide array of measures that Global Gateway could undertake to buttress democratic infrastructure. These could range from investing in media organisations and supporting open data systems to bolstering legal aid systems and brokering public-private partnerships for the provision of social services. Establishing a European Fund for Democratic Infrastructure, designed on a more-for-more basis, would not only complement Global Gateway but also serve as a potent instrument for supporting democracies to effectively meet the needs of their citizens. To this end, the Commission must allocate a portion of each flagship project to channelling and structuring the meaningful participation of democratic actors.

Looking ahead

There is undoubtedly a long road ahead, but the EU’s Global Gateway has the potential to represent a constructive alternative to the no-questions-asked approach championed by China through its Belt and Road Initiative. Achieving this aim will require a clear understanding of the interdependencies between economic growth and democratic governance, underscoring the fact that the EU’s partners are not just political and economic elites but the people in each country where the EU works. To do this, Global Gateway needs to stay true to its stated vision and ensure that accountability and transparency are central in every project. The Commission’s recent call for the Global Gateway to focus narrowly on EU economic interest risks undermining its added value and its appeal to partner countries.

This is doable. As this article has shown the EU has already taken steps in different sectors that can be borrowed for Global Gateway itself. What will be required is consistency and a long-term political vision that has not yet materialised, and not mere realpolitik. The Global Gateway can fulfil its promises and become a significant catalyst for change by driving investments to critical areas of need while advancing a way of doing business that fits the geopolitical moment. But in order to do so it must ensure that promoting democracy and EU values remains its ultimate goal.

Author

Sergio Rodriguez Prieto is a development practitioner and trainer with 20 years’ experience in the fields of governance and democracy support. He has formulated, implemented, and evaluated projects and programs in Latin America, Eastern Europe, the MENA Region and Central and Southeast Asia. He is EPD’s Strategic Advisor and co-developer of the INSPIRED Approach, a method for multi-stakeholder policy dialogue that has been implemented in seventeen countries and on a wide array of topics, from access to information to drug use, land tenure, socioeconomic rights of women, or rights of people with disabilities.