Nov 03, 2023

Will the EU’s Global Gateway Launch a “Race to the Top”?

Brussels has rebranded and repositioned its connectivity and infrastructure initiatives. But Global Gateway will need to maintain the right balance between pursuing strategic interests and offering improved conditions to partner countries.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gestures as she addresses the EU Global Gateway Forum 2023, in Brussels, Belgium October 25, 2023.
All rights reserved

“The world needs investment—the right kind of investment,” begins a trailer on YouTube for the Global Gateway Forum 2023. Held in Brussels at the end of October, it “brought together over 40 high-level government representatives, financial institutions, and business representatives” to discuss the European Union’s new connectivity strategy, which was launched in December 2021 under the name “Global Gateway.”

The forum came just a week after leaders gathered in Beijing to celebrate the 10th anniversary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The timing was apparently coincidental, and the EU has been making an effort not to frame Global Gateway as a response to the BRI, but the BRI lurks behind every positive statement about the Global Gateway initiative.

For there to be a “right kind” of investment and what the EU calls a “positive offer,” implies a wrong kind of investment and a negative offer, and it is clear which country European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had in mind when she warned at the forum that investment options sometimes come “with a very high price.”

On the Global Gateway website, there is even an FAQ page listing the question, “Is Global Gateway a response to the Chinese Belt and Road initiative?” The answer doesn’t mention China, or really answer the question.

Old Wine in New Bottles?

Echoes of the BRI are not limited to the shadow of Global Gateway’s “positive offer,” they are also present in European critiques of Global Gateway, which suggest the European approach is becoming more Chinese. Two of the criticisms leveled against the EU’s global infrastructure initiative—that it is just branding, and that it is too focused on European interests—speak directly to lessons Brussels has drawn from the BRI.

For some, the forum provided a degree of clarity against a backdrop of confusion about the initiative’s abstract, amorphous nature. “At least now you have some concrete examples—data cables, energy infrastructure, etc., that wasn’t the case previously—it was very metaphysical,” Niels Keijzer from the German Institute of Development and Sustainability says.

Global Gateway has been criticized for being a catch-all brand for everything the EU already did on development—old wine in new bottles. For a long time, it wasn’t quite clear what exactly Global Gateway is. For some, that’s still the case.

But the same thing can be said of China’s BRI. It is a marketing slogan and a political narrative, used to put a positive spin on China’s footprint in the world—to dress up everything from road building to archaeological cooperation as a global public good.

Branding is one of two main lessons that Brussels learned from Beijing, the other being the importance of using connectivity and development to achieve geopolitical, strategic goals.

Poor Visibility

The poor visibility of EU investments in comparison to Chinese finance has been a sore point for Brussels since before the BRI. By the EU’s own reckoning, it handed out almost as much in grants between 2013 and 2018 as China did in loans for BRI projects (€414 billion vs. €434 billion). However, it is China and the BRI in the spotlight, and politicians cut ribbons on Chinese bridges, rather than for EU-funded training programs.

Global Gateway is designed as a solution to this visibility dilemma, entailing a focus on high profile, hard infrastructure projects and collecting EU investments under a single brand name. In her 2021 “State of the European Union” speech, where she unveiled Global Gateway, von der Leyen made this clear, stating her ambition to “turn Global Gateway into a trusted brand around the world.”

“It's absolutely legitimate to brand collective EU Member States and institutions investment in infrastructure under an umbrella brand such as Global Gateway—for everyone to see and better understand the sum of EU investment,” Romana Vlahutin, a Visiting Distinguished Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) who spearheaded the EU’s connectivity drive as an European External Action Service ambassador-at-large from 2019 to 2022, tells IPQ.

However, the problem is that Global Gateway also promised to be something new. As well as branding, Global Gateway is supposed to be a more muscular, geopolitical approach to connectivity, with a hard infrastructure focus. For that, it needs to be more than old wine.

Strategic Investment

Handing responsibility for Global Gateway to the department responsible for EU development policy, the Directorate-General for International Partnerships (DG-INTPA), may not have helped this purpose. According to Noah Barkin of Rhodium Group and the GMF, “DG-INTPA follows a very traditional development approach. They didn’t see Global Gateway as a strategic, geopolitical project, or how it should be anything fundamentally different.”

This conflict between the strategists and the development purists cuts right to the heart of the EU’s dilemma in competing with China—to what extent does the EU need to move beyond its principles and past priorities in order to stay relevant?

“There’s an identity crisis with this whole initiative,” says Keijzer. “Is it about the EU being unique, or about the EU offer being the same but better?” On the one hand, Global Gateway promises to do things differently than the BRI in terms of sustainability and promotion of EU values. On the other hand, it also seems to move closer to the BRI in terms of pursuing strategic investments and EU interests. This suggests a conflict of interest between these objectives.

“Focusing the initiative on EU values makes it harder for the bloc to be flexible in its rollout,” says Grzegorz Stec, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies. “It’s not clear to what extent Global Gateway is new in terms of direction.”

At a certain point in Global Gateway’s history, it appeared that DG-INTPA were simply branding their existing activities under the initiative. “To put the Global Gateway sticker on almost all EU development assistance work is missing the point,” Vlahutin says. “Investment in critical infrastructure is strategic investment, not development assistance, this should not be confused. These are two different frameworks, both in terms of politics and methodology."

On this note, the Brussels development community appears to agree. Maria José Romero, a development finance expert at the European Network on Debt and Development, would like to see a separation between development on the one hand and commercial and foreign policy interests on the other. Instead, she feels that the European Commission seems to be “re-orientating development commitments around geopolitical priorities.”

Not all see this as a new turn. “The EU and its member states have always pursued development cooperation as part of foreign policy,” Keijzer says. With Global Gateway, “the EU is saying up front, we have our interests, and we are pursuing those.”

In the Chinese system, overseas development assistance and strategic investments are interminably tangled. As Keijzer notes, it is not completely clear-cut, but the EU’s development priorities generally steer it away from tying development assistance to commercial and foreign policy objectives. In contrast, the BRI is fundamentally about furthering the goals of the Chinese Communist Party and state-owned interests.

Getting the Balance Right

There are other signs that the EU is taking a step closer to the Chinese way of doing things. According to von der Leyen, Global Gateway is “about giving choices to countries—better choices.” But it is also about giving options that improve European economic security and European influence in the world. It is, according to von der Leyen, a “win-win for all partners involved.”

“Win-win” does a lot of heavy lifting in Chinese foreign policy rhetoric, too, and critics sometimes claim that when applied to the BRI, the phrase means that China wins twice. For both China and the EU, it is important that they strike the right balance between their own interests and partner priorities.

According to Hannah Ryder, CEO of Development Reimagined, an African-led development consultancy with headquarters in China, “African governments welcome the idea of the Global Gateway, but if it is really about development, then the balance of the win-win should really be on the African side. This is the same thing that we say about the BRI.”

“Moving away from aid to more commercial engagement has long been on African agendas,” Cobus van Staden, a senior researcher with the South African Institute for International Affairs and managing editor of the China-Global South Project, tells IPQ. This commercial engagement is something the Chinese are generally said to do better than Europeans. According to van Staden, African governments are accustomed to and frustrated by the EU’s “focus on broad policy reforms over a pragmatic, project-level focus.” If the EU really is headed in the direction of commercial engagement with Global Gateway, “it will be well received in African countries,” van Staden predicts, the more so if it allows for “localization”—projects that involve African firms, create local jobs, and involve processing of raw materials in country.

Responding to criticism that Global Gateway is overly self-interested, Reinhard Bütikofer, a German Green MEP and an important advocate for a more muscular European response to the BRI, points to the example of Namibia. At the Global Gateway Forum, the EU and Namibia signed a €1 billion “roadmap” for strategic partnership, which Bütikofer says involves the processing of critical minerals within Namibia. “If that is not a perfect example of development cooperation, I don’t know what is,” he tells IPQ. “They get an industrial leg up and we gain a supply source independent of China.”

The deal has its critics, though. Ryder of Development Reimagined says the lithium processing is low grade, turning lithium ore into lithium concentrate. Processing to high value battery-ready lithium would be preferable. In any case, Namibia has banned the export of raw lithium. Pointing to China’s recent lithium deal with Zimbabwe, which also only includes low grade processing, “It’s not yet clear whether [the EU’s agreement with Namibia] goes beyond the minimum,” Ryder says.

A Better Offer

There are still reasons to be pessimistic about Global Gateway’s prospects. For a start, only a few leaders of EU member states accepted their invitations to the forum, undermining the whole “Team Europe” approach. Even within Brussels, support for the initiative is not full-throated. “Divisions within the European Commission have never fully been resolved,” says Barkin. “For this sort of thing you need everyone pulling in the same direction.”

Also, the EU’s central pledge to leverage private capital is in doubt, without which the €300 billion promised by von der Leyen doesn’t add up. “I certainly hope we can, but I still don’t fully understand how we are going to attract private capital at the scale needed,” says Vlahutin. “And without private capital, there’s no chance it’s going to work. Building large infrastructure is a very expensive business.” Others, including Bütikofer, welcome the fact that Global Gateway “is finally coming out of the woods.”

Much suggests that the EU has taken a step closer to the BRI. If so, it is crucially important for the EU to truly deliver on its promise of a “better offer.” This means listening to partner priorities and ensuring the “win-win” equation is balanced fairly. As Ryder puts it, it needs to lead to “a race to the top.”

Jacob Mardell is editorial coordinator of n-ost’s “Spheres of Influence” project and an expert on China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Read more by the author