This week’s Global Gateway Forum offers the EU a chance to show global leaders how a focus on democratic values and transparency distinguishes it from China’s Belt and Road. To succeed, this focus should be established from the start, write Sam van der Staak and Paul Maassen.
On 25 October, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will host global leaders for the EU’s first Global Gateway Forum. The 300-billion-euro investment fund aims to be not only more effective but also more democratic than China’s competing Belt and Road initiative.
However, to outperform China and win the hearts and minds of citizens globally, Global Gateway needs to better underscore its commitment to democratic principles.
The EU’s Global Gateway initiative promises to invest 300 billion euros in digital, energy, and transport sectors and strengthen health, education, and research systems across the world.
This week’s Global Gateway Forum offers the EU an opportunity to show global leaders how a focus on values distinguishes it from China’s Belt and Road. Since its launch in 2013, China’s flagship investment vehicle has left a trail of corruption scandals and human rights violations.
One study found that 35% of Belt and Road projects suffered from corruption scandals, labour violations, environmental hazards, and public protests.
By contrast, Global Gateway aims to be more democratic and ‘work for people and planet’. The Global Gateway website presents democratic values as the first of its underlying principles. EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell has even called Global Gateway’s twin aims “to promote trusted connectivity and democratic values worldwide”.
EU external action is typically most effective when it combines investing in trade or security with investing in foundational values it stands for like democracy and good governance. It has excelled in value-heavy policies such as the war in Ukraine, the Green Deal, digital rules, and COVID-vaccine solidarity.
Conversely, it encounters challenges when promoting interests that clash with its principles, as evident in its historical energy dependence on Russia, the 2020 investment agreement with China, and the recent migration deal with Tunisia.
Yet, despite its ambitions, Global Gateway’s democratic impact is not self-evident. In fact, Global Gateway partner countries constitute a poor reflection of democracy.
According to the Global State of Democracy Indices, only 2 out of 46 partner countries, Costa Rica and Chile, are high-performing in the fields of representation, rule of law, rights and participation. Only eight countries are high-performing in one, two or three of these categories. 25 partner countries 54% score in the low range on the absence of corruption.
The combination of autocratic leadership and poor transparency is a dangerous mix when billions of euros are at stake. If done well, investing in infrastructure can deliver much more than roads and cables.
It can create opportunities for citizens to shape or oversee decisions that will impact their lives. It can be a lever for combating corruption. It can help create a more vibrant level-playing field for the private sector. And it can contribute to building trust in society that democracies deliver for all, not just the powerful elites.
Therefore, if it is to make its economic goals succeed, Global Gateway’s declared focus on democratic values and transparency should be established from the start. The EU can do so in at least four ways.
First, the EU can build a level of conditionality into its investments, by awarding more democratic countries such as Zambia and Nepal higher shares of funds than autocratic and hybrid ones. Partner countries would be rewarded with additional investments when their democracy expands, and reverse conditionality when their democracy backslides.
Second, the EU should avoid the Chinese opaque model, whereby infrastructure projects result from deals with powerful individuals instead of all-of-society investment agreements.
In weak democracies, to guarantee that money is well spent and citizen rights ensured, the EU should tie its initiatives to support parliamentary oversight, auditing capacity (including proven citizen audits like the ones in the Philippines and Nigeria), and media and civic scrutiny.
Evidence shows that collaboration between government and civil society is positively correlated with reforms that are more ambitious and have stronger outcomes. The EU can use the opportunity of the current review of its NDICI global funding instrument to increase the share going to democracy support.
Third, Global Gateway can link investments to democracy at regional and global levels. It can offer partner countries and civil society a seat at the table when designing EU digital rules or climate plans that have a global ripple effect.
Large-scale spending is notoriously prone to waste and corruption, so it is crucial that the EU fosters legitimacy in its investments. It can establish an EU-Global South Technology and Democracy Alliance to support the human-centric use of tech in partner countries.
Lastly, the EU should build the operational capacity to deliver Global Gateway’s democratic ambitions. It should include a democracy lens from the start of each project, instead of as an afterthought. It should develop democratic guidelines on transparency, accountability, and participation for EU Delegation staff dealing with infrastructure and energy projects.
The EU should appoint a democracy coordinator within each Global Gateway project. It should set up an independent screening initiative to audit Global Gateway projects for open and responsive procedures from concept to realization.
If the EU is serious about linking investments to democracy under Global Gateway, as it has regularly mentioned, it has options to implement this successfully.
Doing so will not only ensure this massive investment pays off long term for people and the planet but also make it stand out from China’s opaque practices that have enraged citizens from Kenya to Cambodia.
Most importantly, the values-driven approach will win the hearts and minds of its global partners, which the EU so sorely needs in an increasingly multipolar world.
Sam van der Staak is the director for Europe at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). Paul Maassen is the chief country support and secretary-general for Europe at the Open Government Partnership (OGP).