The EU’s Strategy for connecting Europe and Asia is greener and more sustainable than China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, but there remains scope for the two sides to work together, a senior European official said.
Speaking in an interview on the sidelines of the Second Belt & Road Forum in Beijing, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said the European Union would be happy to increase its cooperation with Beijing as long as it could improve the transparency of its grand plan for boosting trade and infrastructure.
“For us, connectivity is a little bit wider than the concept covered by the belt and road,” he said of the EU’s global development ambitions.
“We focus on sustainable financing, avoid debt traps and always do our due diligence. We are also very careful about environmental assessments and the impact of projects on the public. This is something that makes the European approach to infrastructure very attractive.”
The EU released its connectivity plan for Asia last year, with the promise to redouble its efforts to build transport, digital and energy infrastructure across a region in which China is already very active.
Sefcovic, who said in a recent article that countries were increasingly turning to the EU for their connectivity needs, was the first senior official to meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang when the forum opened on Thursday.
He said he told Li that Europe was happy to boost trade with China currently worth about €1.6 billion (US$1.78 billion) a day and cooperation on the belt and road, as long as Beijing dealt with the concerns of European businesses.
At the EU-China Summit in Brussels last month, several member states threatened to walk away from the talks as a result of Beijing’s failure to follow through on its promises for market reforms.
It was only at the last minute that a joint statement in which the two sides agreed to create a mechanism for monitoring each other’s pledges regarding the opening up of their markets was drafted and approved.
“Our trade relationship has become so important that it forces the EU to have a very close look at the current and future relationship with China,” Sefcovic said. “Therefore we spent quite a lot of time discussing our relationship, which was reflected in our new China strategy.”
The EU has adopted a much tougher stance on China in recent months. In March, the European Commission put forward a new 10-point strategy in which it branded the Asian giant a “systemic rival”.
“I think that also for our Chinese partners it’s clear that our trade relationship has become so important, and could become even more important in the future, if it Beijing can resolve the issues which we very clearly indicated in our joint statement,” Sefcovic said.
“If our companies and our member states feel we are being treated fairly in China, I think it would open new possibilities for even bigger trade and cooperation.”
The European Chamber of Commerce said on Thursday that China must “follow through” on the commitments it made in the joint statement agreed in Brussels.
“While there have been a great deal of promises coming from China, many of which demonstrate a desire to assume greater global responsibility and drive change in many areas, they still have to be fully translated into positive actions,” Chamber Vice President Massimo Bagnasco said.
Sefcovic said Li appeared sincere when promising that China would deal with the concerns of European firms.
“If China gives clearer information … and had a more open and transparent procurement process, I’m sure there would be more European companies involved in the belt and road,” he said.