So that there is no misunderstanding: It is not a new name for Berlin Airport, nor is it an AOL modem from the 1990s. No, what EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced as the “global gateway” in her address on the State of the European Union is one of the most important, if not the most important, foreign policy initiative of the EU.
Brussels woke up late, but not too late. A “geopolitical commission” had promised von der Leyen when she took office. Then came the pandemic, the EU countries closed themselves off, Europe looked into the abyss. The EU was able to prevent the worst from happening, with nerve-wracking negotiations, the joint reconstruction fund was created – the 750 billion euros deposited proof that European solidarity is more than an ornamental word for Sunday speeches.
The Europeans also stuck together when it came to obtaining vaccines. The errors and delays that the Commission was accused of at the turn of the year are slowly being forgotten. The vaccination rate in Europe is now higher than in Great Britain and the USA.
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So it’s time to take a look beyond the European horizon. The world has crossed the threshold of a new system of rivalry. Democracies are coming under pressure, autocrats think they are on the up. Not Europe’s problem? To think that way would be a fatal mistake.
What is at stake with the rise of authoritarian forces like the People’s Republic of China is not just the global supremacy of the United States. But also the foundation of values of freedom and a market economy on which the EU was built.
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Which draws the bow to the Silk Road. The Chinese regime gains influence with targeted economic aid. In Asia, Latin America, Africa and, for a long time, Europe too, Beijing finances roads, ports, train routes, data cables and power plants – prestige projects of corrupt rulers as well as urgently needed trade connections.
In the tenders for Silk Road projects, it is mainly Chinese companies that come into play, while European competitors are left empty-handed. Transparency plays just as little a role as human rights and environmental standards, and profitability is also secondary. The main thing is that there are dependencies that can be used strategically.
For example, when it comes to convincing a country like Hungary to block a joint EU declaration against China’s actions in Hong Kong, as last happened in June. The example shows: China’s orbit has long been affecting the EU.
It was the Chinese geopolitical masterpiece to realize that there is a huge need for infrastructure that is not being met by private investors and multilateral development organizations like the World Bank. The regime is pushing into this infrastructure gap, which is estimated at $ 1,500 billion a year.
Infrastructure policy has become a geostrategic power play
The reward is not primarily a financial one, but a strategic return: the spread of authoritarian values, the expansion of one’s own sphere of power. Change through trade in Chinese characteristics, that is how one could describe this policy.
The result is “Sinocentric structures that are not in our interest”, warns the Federal Foreign Ministry internally. Word has long got around in Europe’s capitals that infrastructure policy has become a geostrategic power play.
But the EU Commission was preoccupied with itself until the very end, and an internal power struggle was raging. The officials who decide on the distribution of development aid in Brussels want to continue as before, not to allow themselves to be persuaded by the management level.
Von der Leyen has now countered the inertia of the administrative apparatus with an ambitious geo-economic agenda – finally. Europe is the largest international donor of development aid, and the European internal market is one of the most attractive economic areas in the world. The only question is what the EU will do with it politically. It arises right now, after the debacle in Afghanistan, when Europe has to look for new ways to assert its interests.
“Global Gateway” will largely decide whether von der Leyen can keep its promise of a “geopolitical commission”. The EU has all the resources it needs to forge infrastructure partnerships and reduce China’s influence. It just has to be ready to use the funds.
More: State of the EU address: These are Ursula von der Leyen’s most important announcements