Romano Prodi singles out Beijing-led ‘16+1’ platform, saying it isn’t in the country’s interest to create division. He also calls on EU to build a ‘shared decision-making process’ with China for projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.

China should avoid diplomatic moves that could be seen as dividing Europe, as it would not be in Beijing’s long-term interest, former European Commission President Romano Prodi says.

In a wide-ranging interview this week, Prodi also called on the European Union to build what he described as a “shared decision-making process” with China for projects under the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative.

Highlighting the need for China to respect Europe’s unity, Prodi singled out another initiative, the “16+1” platform, which Beijing has used to deal directly with a group of Central and Eastern European nations, providing financial support to both its EU and non-EU members.

“I’m worried about the 16+1 [platform], not because China must not have a special interest for some countries, even more so for the eastern part of Europe because it’s closer to China in some ways but why institutionalise it?” said Prodi, a two-time Italian Prime Minister.

Prodi added that the 16+1 grouping gave “a message that in some ways … [China is] trying to split Europe. I think it’s not a long-term Chinese interest to split Europe”.

Western Europe has viewed the China-led platform with scepticism, though the EU has been accused by some Eastern European countries of not doing enough to boost their economies.

At the last summit, held in April in Dubrovnik, Croatia, Greece joined the platform known as the China and Central and Eastern European Countries (China-CEEC) making it the “17+1”.

Launched in 2012, it now comprises 12 EU member states and five Balkan nations that are also slated to join the EU in the future. Much of the funding offered for infrastructure is part of Beijing’s global belt and road scheme to build transport and trade links from Asia to Africa, Europe and beyond, as China seeks to increase its influence.

The speed with which China has expanded its overseas investment through the strategy has alarmed Europe. Italy became the first Group of Seven nation to sign on to the initiative, inking a memorandum of understanding with Beijing in March. But other European powers have been reluctant to join President Xi Jinping’s pet project, which remains most active in Asia and Africa.

Prodi, who was until last year the United Nations’ special envoy for the Sahel, was also sceptical about China’s activities in Africa.

“China is so active in Africa. China has assets but also problems in Africa. Sometimes the judgement, the common feeling is more of power than a friend. It’s a mix of feelings,” he said.

In Europe, he said nations should work with China on certain projects that are part of the belt and road plan, or go through the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, rather than let China follow its own rules wherever it goes.

Education and health were possible areas for such cooperation, he added.

“I wonder why there’s not one, two, three, 10 projects shared by China and the European Union,” Prodi said. “Respecting all autonomy, something in Africa or Pakistan or in Europe [can be jointly done], in which you have a common decision-making process.

“My dream is to have common projects or a framework for the Silk Road between Europe and China, with shared decision-making not equal, but sharing the decision-making process,” he said.