The building blocks for mutually-beneficial cooperation between the EU and China are there. Time now to translate those principles into practice, writes Maroš Šefčovič who will be the EU representative at this week’s second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing.
Maroš Šefčovič is Vice-President of the European Commission, in charge of the Energy Union.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative has received a lot of attention since it was announced back in 2013. Increasingly, this attention has raised questions of unsustainable financing, the quality of infrastructure, and environmental concerns.
The European Union is not without its fair share of critics. But connectivity – an admittedly abstract term that requires further explanation or at least illustration – is probably one of the areas in which we have had the most success.
Since 1987, millions of Europeans have studied or worked outside of their home country thanks to the Erasmus programme. Over the past five years we have made immeasurable progress in creating an Energy Union, tackling the big energy security and energy transition that we can’t solve within national borders. Since mid-2017, there have been no roaming charges across the EU. A combination of the Schengen area, free movement of people, and the euro currency means that travelling between EU countries, whether for work or for play, is simple.
In short, the European Union is about bringing people together and improving the quality of life of our citizens. Connectivity is part of our DNA.
The success we have had in connecting people within the EU has proven to be an attractive model for countries beyond our borders. We are currently working with countries in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe to extend the existing Trans-European Transport Network. Together with Japan, we have created the world’s largest area of safe data transfers, based on a high level of protection of personal data. We are supporting an electricity transmission system to improve electricity access and expand markets in Central and South Asia. And with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the European Union is supporting their own regional integration efforts, particularly in trade facilitation.
On the face of it, the Chinese model looks attractive: easy access to finance, rapid building of infrastructure, a ready-made, qualified workforce. Why is it, then, that many countries are increasingly turning to the EU, rather than China, as a partner?
The answer lies in the European Union’s commitment to the sustainability of infrastructure investments that create quality jobs, protect the environment, and do not leave countries in debt traps.
The EU insists on and provides a level-playing field for businesses, good regulation, and an adherence to international norms and standards, with the OECD and the World Bank playing crucial roles. European companies have extraordinary expertise, which can be maximised beyond our borders when they have equal access to tenders. This is not yet the case. The EU has rigorous safety standards, labour laws and environmental commitments that are, for us, not optional. We also have developed flexible financing methods: mixing grants, loans from European and International Financial Institutions such as the European Investment Bank, and private sources of funding. Both borrowers and creditors, official and private, must implement sustainable financing practices.
At the recent EU-China Summit (Brussels, 9 April), China signed up to abide by the principles of market rules, transparency, open procurement, a level playing field and fair competition. We also agreed to step up our cooperation on improving connections between Europe and Asia in an economically, socially, fiscally, financially and environmentally sustainable way.
These are encouraging signs. As part of our regular discussions on the topic of connectivity (the EU-China Connectivity Platform), we have agreed to look into how and where to improve Eurasian rail networks.
More broadly, our joint commitments to implementing the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Climate Agreement, as well as to preserving a cooperative, rules-based and peaceful international system, show that on paper, we share many of the same objectives. The building blocks for positive, mutually-beneficial cooperation between the EU and China on developing our countries and our common neighbourhoods are there.
As the European Union’s representative at this week’s second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, my message will be that now is the time for all of us to translate these principles into practice. If we succeed, China, Europe and the wider world stand to benefit.