EU Progresses Infrastructure Initiative To Rival BRI

(Europe) A Globally Connected Europe

A new European strategy that will see the bloc invest in its own infrastructure project to rival China’s ‘Belt and Road’ promises opportunities for breakbulk operators around the globe. 

The proposals were announced following a meeting of leaders in the Council of the European Union and lay the groundwork for a new geostrategic and global approach to connectivity, dubbed “A Globally Connected Europe”.

This plan will see the bloc advance its “economic, foreign and development policy and security interests” as it also seeks to promote European values in the various regions it engages with. 

“The EU's new infrastructure plan “A Globally Connected Europe” will focus on improving connectivity with other economies,” Tie Schellekens, spokesperson for the Port of Rotterdam Authority told Breakbulk. “Political motives aside this will create economic opportunities because infrastructural investments imply the need for breakbulk cargoes like steel, aluminium and heavy lift and project cargoes like components for bridges, roads, railways and port infrastructure like cranes etc.” 

Global connectivity

For breakbulk carriers and ports, the announcement has been welcomed as a positive sign for global competition and for European involvement in a new wave of construction projects. Given the Council’s remit it is expected that a significant proportion of funding will focus on connectivity with existing breakbulk hubs and trade routes. 

“The port of Rotterdam is more than ready to facilitate any trade flows or commodity flows resulting from this “Globally Connected Europe” project,” Schellekens notes. “The port of Rotterdam has unrivalled capacity, is a deep-water port, with connections to all parts of the globe and the stevedoring companies and logistic service providers in the port can handle all sorts of breakbulk commodities from pulp and paper to monopiles.”

No details on the amount of investment that EU members will provide for the new “Globally Connected Europe” initiative but Brussels has long been concerned at the scale and rate fo Chinese investment in what it had traditionally considered EU assets, such as major ports in Greece and Italy.

“It has a broader purpose to put connectivity at the center of our external policy. We started to do this two years ago with our agreement with Japan. But it seems that today is much more important for us to look at the connectivity problems with the broader Middle East and looking forward to Central Asia and China, but not with the same approach and the same purposes that China has with the Belt and Road initiative,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy states. 

Estimates suggest that China invested about US$770 billion in its Belt and Road Initiative between 2013 and 2020, with projects in 138 countries around the world.

Rules-based development

While the scale of the new plan is new, the origins of hte strategy stretch back to previous European Council conclusions in the 2018 Joint Communication and Council Conclusions, “Connecting Europe and Asia – building blocks for an EU Strategy”.

This called for greater connectivity between the two continents based on growth, security and resilience and affirmed the council’s determination to ensure that project development was sustainable, comprehensive, and rules-based.

The Chinese Belt and Road was adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 and has remained controversial since then. Hailed as the largest infrastructure development plan ever seen at the time, the initiative has been clouded by controversy about China’s involvement in developing countries and the opaque nature of many of the contract awards. 

“We see China using economic and financial means to increase its political influence everywhere in the world. It's useless moaning about this, we must offer alternatives,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in comments to Reuters.

Despite concerns from Western nations, the Belt and Road initiative has been successful in stimulating breakbulk activity in a wide-range of under developed regions and has been held up as an example of coordinated planning at the continent-scale, a policy that the European Council is keen to emulate. 

The Council has stressed the importance of investing in both physical infrastructure and regulatory frameworks however and called on the Commission and High Representative to coordinate with member states and European businesses, as well as with financial and development institutions, to maintain a “level playing field” and build on existing partnerships with Japan and India.

“The extent to which a port like Rotterdam can profit from such a large investment scheme depends on where projects will be developed, what expertise is needed and which companies are going to be involved. For now It is too early to give any specific details on the possible role of the Port of Rotterdam,” Schellekens said. 

One of the largest breakbulk hubs in Europe, the port of Rotterdam handles total throughput of more than 400 million tonnes and is a event partner for Breakbulk events. Breakbulk Europe 2022 will be held in Rotterdam.

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