Amid the fog of a tumultuous month, the EU staged its first Global Gateway Forum in Brussels on 25-26 October.
As a show of the bloc’s diplomatic strength it was a small triumph, gathering major partners and world leaders (including 16 heads of state) to mark the launch of its flagship infrastructure programme.
Originally announced in 2021, Global Gateway is a political statement as well as an investment strategy, and an offer to both the Global South and the EU’s neighbourhood. While the initiative has strongly focused on infrastructure finance, it is also an opportunity for Europe to ‘win hearts and minds’. The implicit message to its competitors is clear: Europe wants to present a higher-quality, more sustainable and more values-driven alternative, both through the type of projects it offers and the financing it provides.
While Global Gateway has faced some scepticism since its announcement, the Forum was another step towards turning what was initially a nebulous programme into something a little more concrete and globally credible. Here are five main takeaways from the Forum:
1. European economic security is defining the EU’s partnerships strategy
One of Global Gateway's key objectives is to strengthen Europe within the current multipolar global context. There was a clear emphasis on geopolitics and access to resources at the Forum, which was echoed by EU High Representative Josep Borrell in his speech to ambassadors in early November.
The centrality of geopolitics within the European development strategy has both positive and negative implications. On the one hand, the subsequent shift in focus to finding ‘win-win’ mutual benefits with partners (very much echoing the modalities of non-OECD donors) is to be welcomed as a less paternalistic paradigm with rightful recognition of the need to prevent the extractive practices of historical relationships. On the other hand, ploughing funding into complex infrastructure projects can come at the expense of other ‘soft’ development objectives. Historically, the EU has been a major contributor to priorities that advance shared global prosperity such as alleviating poverty and building strong institutions. The future of such priorities within both the Forum and the wider EU international partnerships strategy remains unclear.
2. Climate infrastructure stole the headlines
Global Gateway lists climate investment, education, health and digital as key sectors for cooperation, yet of these four thematic areas, climate was biggest headline in the key speeches delivered at the Forum. The initiative’s focus on climate infrastructure is exemplified in the EU-Namibia Strategic Partnership, where green hydrogen development and sustainable raw materials are core features of cooperation. Supporting green transition in partner countries is one developmental outcome, but Global Gateway also serves the EU’s strategic interests since investing in Namibia’s port infrastructure and logistics bolsters the bloc’s energy security and its access to the resources critical to its own energy transition.
Global Gateway’s emphasis on the need for these projects to be socially and financially sustainable is welcome. But as one delegate put it at the Forum, cooperation should go beyond financing and actually add value to partner economies. The Just Energy Transition Partnerships (JETPs), in which the EU also participates, are supporting the integration of broader goals such as job creation. Beyond physical projects, however, Global Gateway should place greater importance on technology and knowledge transfer in frontier industries through research exchange and capacity building.
3. Global Gateway is putting its money where its mouth is
Early criticism of Global Gateway centred on how it ‘repackaged’ existing finance and the uncertainty over its implementation. But the Forum demonstrated that momentum is gathering: 90 flagship projects have been announced this year (half of which are to be grant financed), with more projects to come in 2024.
Africa dominates as the region of focus: the €150 billion Africa-Europe Investment Package represents a major milestone, constituting half of the €300 billion Global Gateway has pledged to mobilise by 2027 largely via co-financing and catalytic financing with EFSD+ guarantees. This reliance on private sector mobilisation prompts two questions. How much finance can actually be raised given the chequered record of blended finance in leveraging additional finance? And will it be sufficient to counter European investors' risk aversion in Africa? Nevertheless, there have been some innovative developments: for instance, the newly announced African Local Currency Bond guarantee programme – established in collaboration with German development bank KfW – will support the development of local and regional capital markets in an area where access to capital is limited and its cost is disproportionately high compared to other regions.
4. Still some way to go before full implementation
Given that the implementation of Global Gateway is only about a third of the way through, there remains work to do on several fronts. The desire to harness the collective power of Team Europe through the initiative is yet to be fully realised, as some member states continue to report a lack of clarity, further illustrated by the rather limited senior representation from member states at the Forum. Collective buy-in from all member states will be key to enabling the necessary scale to meet Global Gateway’s ambitions and avoiding potential European divisions if the programme is perceived to prioritise investment opportunities in some states over others.
More thought is also needed on how to engage with wider actors to ensure that Global Gateway meets its full potential. The programme’s governance structure remains rather murky to the outside observer, as reflected in the Forum’s failure to attract strong representation from think tanks and civil society organisations. This stands in contrast to past EU ‘development days’, which would convene a range of key development actors.
5. A tale of two fora
The Forum took place just a week after China’s Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in Beijing, which adds to the sense that Global Gateway is a rival alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The two fora were evenly matched in terms of their diplomatic pull. Each welcomed around two dozen heads of state or government: a healthy turnout for Global Gateway, but a decline compared to previous years for China’s BRF, which had a smaller (and more controversial) guest list. The Venn diagram of attendees does overlap, however: high-level representation from Egypt, Kenya, Serbia and Vietnam at both fora indicates that many lower- and middle-income countries are not seeking to pick sides, geopolitically speaking, but rather have an appetite for multiple partnerships.
China’s BRF signalled a long-standing pivot in the BRI’s approach, which has shifted in recent years both in terms of the scale of financing and the type of projects. While Global Gateway sells itself as a better alternative to the BRI of the last decade – particularly on sustainability, climate, digital infrastructure and the implementation of better standards – the BRI has also been evolving in a similar direction. BRI 2.0 plinaces a greater emphasis on ‘green BRI’, green and digital technology, quality and ‘high standards’, matching much more closely Global Gateway’s own offer. While the BRI has suffered reputational damage, Beijing’s ability to coordinate and mobilise financiers and investors at speed to go overseas far outstrips the influence Europe holds over its private sector. Brussels should not be complacent on the competitiveness of its own offer.
The (gate)way forward
While the first Global Gateway Forum marks significant progress in building commitment to Europe’s flagship strategy, there remains work to be done in mobilising private actors, ensuring sufficient financing, and furthering engagement of member states and wider actors. Such actions will be key to ensuring that Global Gateway has endurance against political winds.
From strengthening institutions to promoting peaceful societies, the essential priorities for global prosperity remain important facets of the EU’s partnerships strategy and Team Europe initiatives. Such objectives were noticeably missing from the Forum. This is a reflection of the current agenda, where development is embedded under broader geopolitical strategies. As the plans of the next Commission are formalised in the coming year, reflection on the overall strategy will be fundamental.