Is Europe Ready to Become a Part of the Belt and Road Initiative?

The EU’s strategic autonomy may require a strategic reset with Russia, a move Washington’s anti-Russian hawks loathe the most. It seems that both France and Germany are increasingly inclined to the idea of turning the page regarding the Ukraine crisis, even if criticism over Crimea’s seizure continues. The old Europe would not be willing to go to war with Russia, driven either by the big brother across the Atlantic or little Slavic brothers within. 

I have little doubt that Italy will not be the last member of the G7 and EU to take part in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The only doubt is whether Italy can eventually deliver on what has been agreed upon in the Memo of Understanding between China and Italy, whether it concerns port facilities or trade and investment. 

At first glance, Italy has, remarkably, managed to rally an elite consensus in a very divided country on how to deal with China. The consensus includes politicians from across the political spectrum, from the left to the extreme right, as well as leading Europhiles such as Romano Prodi. At the same time, most other EU countries, not to mention European institutions such as the Council of Europe and the European Commission, have so far failed to do the same. 

However, one simple fact must be kept in mind: Italy is also internally the most chaotic of all G7 members. Since its founding in 1861, Italy has been virtually an “estato senza governo” (republic without government); I lived in this country for several years as a student. 

What is wonderful about Italy is that the country may have created a republic long ago, but it needs to create more Italians, as Camillo Cavour famously said at the founding parliamentary session.

Italy-China Cooperation: A Matter of Concern in the US and the EU?
In the eyes of Brussels, the main problem surrounding China’s signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Italy, a founding member of the EU, is that it might jeopardise Europe’s attempt to create a united negotiating front vis-à-vis Beijing.
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© Reuters

For China, this is clearly a major symbolic victory because of the powerful endorsement from a G7 country which was a founding member of the European integration project. However, it is not the first time that the Italians have fancied grandiose projects with China. Ever since the days of Venetian explorer Marco Polo, the Italians seem to have developed a tendency to exaggerate China’s importance in order to magnify their own importance. Italy’s Jesuit missionaries fancied becoming the leading vanguard of Christianity by converting millions of Chinese to Catholicism. Late 19th century Italian imperialists sought to maintain a silk monopoly in Europe by grabbing a colony in China by force. None of these seemingly worthy causes got very far, and most projects either ended up fizzling out, or simply ended in humiliation, as was the case with the diplomatic fiasco that emerged from Italy’s botched 1898 attempt to colonise Sanmen Bay on China’s East Coast. 

Ironically, the heavy battleship sent by the Italian government for this mission of colonial conquest was named the Marco Polo, and the Chinese government did not even believe Italy could afford to own such a vessel, and therefore stood its ground, publicly rejecting any demand from Italy. When the current, extremely precarious political games collapse again in Italy, any reversal of attitude towards the BRI is surely expected. Blaming previous government for grandiose but unfulfilled projects has been politics par excellence in Italy since the days of Renaissance Florence.

Italy as Enfant Terrible of European Unity
No matter how “enfant terrible” Italy is, it is not alone in desire to reconsider some aspects of European integration, such as financial instruments, migration management or the EU’s common foreign policy. The Italian-French-Polish coalition of Eurosceptic parties is in process of formation, causing strong discontent in official Paris and Berlin.
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Of course, if Germany and France decide to take part in the BRI, the picture will become entirely different. These two countries could deliver things that the BRI badly needs. On the one hand, China’s official argument for the BRI is to promote global economic and social connectivity. A project like this would help maintain the importance of multilateral institutions in the world, especially the UN and the WTO, thereby reducing international conflict. France and Germany are more or less on the same page with China on this and their support is crucial. On the other hand, the real success of the BRI depends on a sustained flow of international investment. Italy cannot deliver either of these. China alone cannot ensure that this project works in the long run. The BRI is doomed to failure if it cannot leverage third party financing, or stimulate a multinational joint-venture in investment projects, especially huge infrastructure projects. The grand design of the BRI requires about 8 trillion USD, if not more. 

During Xi Jinping’s visit to Paris, we heard, for the first time, serious interest from Berlin and Paris concerning the BRI. There’s no doubt there have been concerns over this very idea for the past two years. When the BRI was officially announced in 2013, the EU as a whole reacted positively, mainly due to the new business and investment opportunities. In any case, a massive initiative to help build infrastructure systems in the developing world could not be so bad. However that benign attitude is contingent upon the prospects of the continued trend toward globalisation and free trade. When Donald Trump launched his trade war with China, the geo-economics of the world changed entirely. Initially, the EU was opportunistic, hoping to avoid transatlantic a trade war by supporting ‘Trumpnomics’. The EU elite seemed to believe that, now that Trump’s chief rivalry is locked on China, the EU could use its ideological ‘common values’ argument to consolidate its relationship with the United States. 

When Washington suddenly launched a fierce attack on the BRI, the EU quickly echoed most of its theses. Among leading EU think tanks, outcries against the BRI suddenly became the new trend: the fashionable ones are the “debt trap” theory, the ‘neo-colonialist’ argument and wariness over China’s global expansionism. However, President Trump quickly disappointed the Europeans, who had been hoping to create a fanciful “transatlantic China policy”. Trump is not interested in values but only hard core national interests, which he has simply defined by citing trade balance figures. He hardly cares about any geostrategic dimension of the transatlantic ties as long as Europeans, in his view, take advantage of the NATO system as a “free ride”. The “tariff man”, therefore, would never spare the EU from a trade war. As a result, the EU has now somehow crawled back to its previous position of willingness to entertain the idea of collaborating with China on the BRI.

United States, China, and European Union: Resolving Underlying Conflicts
The year 2019 might also see the further unfolding of the trend towards global bifurcation. Many U.S. firms are gradually shifting their supply chains out of China to other Asian countries, or contemplating this step. The United States is also placing more pressure on its central and eastern European NATO allies to support its containment strategy.
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© 2019 Andy Wong/AP

It’s not surprising that Xi’s state visit to France ended with a quadrilateral dialogue; one which included Chancellor Merkel and EU President Juncker. There’s no doubt that active Franco-German engagement in the BRI would challenge America’s geopolitical priorities, which define China as the number one rival of the US. However, in doing this, the EU is not simply defending its own economic interests. It is also aiming to create much-needed “strategic autonomy”, as envisioned by the EU Global Strategy stipulated in 2016 and most recently, by the renewal of the Franco-German Elysee Treaty with under the new name of Aachen.

The EU’s strategic autonomy may require a strategic reset with Russia, a move Washington’s anti-Russian hawks loathe the most. It seems that both France and Germany are increasingly inclined to the idea of turning the page regarding the Ukraine crisis, even if criticism over Crimea’s seizure continues. The old Europe would not be willing to go to war with Russia, driven either by the big brother across the Atlantic or little Slavic brothers within. Through these crucial geopolitical moves, the transatlantic relationship will be driven further apart, but the EU itself may be rejuvenated because the Franco-German engine for European integration has finally restarted, an engine that has been embarrassingly laggard in recent memory.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.