Belt and Road Initiative and Europe’s fate: still united in diversity?

What if the Belt and Road Initiative is exactly what the European Union needs to redefine itself? In this article, Alisée Pornet provides insights on BRI.


Throughout 2017, several authors debated “Europe’s Destiny” (Ivan Krastev) as challenged by the refugee crisis and defied in “its conquest of ideals” (François Jullien) by the harsh reality of a political community that has been for too long led by economically driven issues. Alisée Pornet provides some insights with regard to the Belt and Road Initiative.

In a certain way, the strength of the EU’s ideals has subsided while its economic plans have declined following the debt crisis. China is coming to Europe with ambitious financial flows (more than one trillion dollars) and plans that  come with debt risks, according to the Center for Global Development, especially for Montenegro, which aspires to becoming an EU member state). Most of Belt and Road Initiative projects run counter to the EU agenda for liberalising trade and push the balance of power in favour of subsidised Chinese companies, according to an EU delegation report. The European Union remains cool and distant towards the BRI initiative. Nevertheless, for some countries, such as Hungary, Greece and several eastern EU countries, BRI is considered as an appealing policy because of its multi-faceted aspects, including its digital issues. The digital European economy needs more than 500 million euro, according to the European Commission. Chinese enterprises are already putting money into the digital economy:  Alibaba’s electronic-World Trade Platform (e-WTP) is creating a move to counter globalisation, pitting SMEs against traditional industries and disrupting industries. It is doing this in Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey. Huawei is building connectivity in rural areas in the Netherlands and Malta.

The BRI is dividing Europe

BRI is dividing Europe with these engaging policies – such as with its digital strategy – but also through China’s bilateral diplomacy in Europe. 16+1 – a soft diplomatic initiative launched in 2012 to expand multi-sector cooperation with 11 EU Member States and 5 Balkan countries – is disrupting the usual channel of dialogue with Eastern European countries. 16+1 is working as a parallel multi-bilateralism, “a bilateral structure that leads to an unequal distribution of power which China exploits”, according to the EU delegation report. Beyond the gates of the European Union, Chinese think tanks, such as the BRI Research Institute, are working closely with leaders from Eastern and Central Europe to bind relations with business enterprises and governments. The Center for International Knowledge Development (CIKD), a new body created in August 2015 under the supervision of the China State Council, refers to Belarus as an example of a successful Special Economic Zone outside China.

Counter-argument to the BRI needed

But, what if the Belt and Road Initiative is exactly what the European Union needs to redefine itself? Is it a pure, strategic, ideological and very seductive plan that can be taken as giving Europe a kind of electric shock to shake it into action? The Belt and Road Initiative is not a threat or a danger for those who can stand united. Some recent events indicate that 16+1 is not insurmountable. For example, 27 of the 28 EU ambassadors to China have just signed a report sharply critical of China’s BRI (except Hungary). The European Union has to build a strong counter-argument to the BRI that will treat its eastern region in a new way. Europe has to recreate a political and symbolic cohesion, rethinking its relationship with China but also with its Eurasian nations. 

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