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Connectivity is part of the European Union’s DNA. As the most inter-connected region in the world, the EU embodies the benefits of linking its 28 Member States and its neighbourhood through the arteries of transport, energy and digital networks. As the European Union Special Representative to the second Belt and Road Forum, I will be carrying to Beijing a personal message from President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker.
The EU’s Strategy on Connecting Europe and Asia is built on the way the EU creates opportunities for citizens, business and investors. The EU is ready to step up its engagement with Asian and other partners on a positive agenda for connectivity, based on realising mutual interests, reaching common objectives through adherence to international norms and standards.
As political, business and civil society leaders gather in Beijing, I will share the EU’s unique 30 years' experience in successfully building sustainable connectivity that binds Europe closer together through transport, energy and digital networks, as well as multiple people-to-people links. The EU is a natural partner of viable initiatives to upgrade infrastructure, looking to extend its Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T), to facilitate trade, investment and mobility also well beyond the EU. We are sharing greater prosperity with our neighbourhood by extending these networks southwards in the Balkans and eastwards to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Our offer is clear and simple with no hidden agenda: we will mobilise our regulatory experience, technical expertise in corridor-based cross-border transport, and the EU's funding opportunities.
With this in mind, the EU is ready to forge meaningful synergies with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Regular exchanges between the EU and China under our Connectivity Platform allow both sides to deepen understanding of each other’s connectivity policies, and to share experience and best practices. Just earlier this month, the EU and China agreed to a joint study on sustainable rail-based corridors under the EU-China Connectivity Platform.
The Study will assess the current situation of railway-based corridors between Europe and China, analyse these corridors’ challenges and problems (in terms of hard and soft connectivity), and propose the most sustainable corridors. It will identify and prioritise the missing links and bottlenecks, thus improving capacity of the hubs as well as the quality of transport services. All relevant countries will be consulted during the implementation of the study.
Leaders at the Belt and Road Forum share a common goal in preserving a cooperative, rules-based and peaceful international system. At the recent EU-China Summit we both signed up to cooperate on improving the economic, social, fiscal, financial and environmental sustainability of Europe-Asia connectivity and its interoperability.
Sustainability is not just a theoretical concept to us. It is essential to unlock prosperity for generations to come. Experience shows that unsustainable projects lead to high-level indebtedness, wasted resources, and undermine benefits for local communities of infrastructure investments, increased pollution and harm to the environment. Global standard lending disciplines and paying heed to financial sustainability are essential, as is bringing in financial institutions and public-private partnerships. Both borrowers and creditors, official and private, must implement sustainable financing practices. We both want cooperation to be embedded within the framework of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The EU is encouraged by China’s agreement at the recent EU-China Summit to abide by the principles of market rules, transparency, open procurement, a level playing field and fair competition. We believe indeed that complying with established international norms and standards – with the OECD and World Bank playing instrumental roles – is the way to viable connectivity cooperation. So are the laws and specific circumstances of the countries benefitting from projects. This is vital to the success, viability and reputation of the Belt and Road Initiative. One measure of success could be how many foreign companies bid for projects in third countries’ markets, if there is a fair chance to be awarded contracts. We hope to soon see EU companies building connecting infrastructure in China or with Chinese partners in third countries.
Effective connectivity can only be built on true partnership – of goals, means and spirit. It is about making the most of global interdependence and realising resilient, rules-based and effective multilateralism. Based on our Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T) policy and networks, we have invested in the Baltic and Black Seas, the Western Balkans, the countries of Eastern Partnership and worked with Central Asia as well as with ASEAN. Effective, functioning and sustainable connectivity is about both physical and non-physical infrastructure through which goods, services, ideas, information and people can flow unhindered. Connectivity is therefore more than just “hardware”. Its ingredients include the promotion of the rule of law, social cohesion, inclusiveness, democracy, good governance, human rights and gender equality. We must address climate change, both at home and abroad, and move decisively towards a post-carbon future.
The EU believes in China and in the EU-China partnership. We are therefore ready to work with China and other partners, in the spirit of openness and engagement, to build bridges for the prosperity of the EU, China and the world.
The author is Vice-President of the European Commission Maroš Šefčovič.