Just half way between the EU-China Summit on July 16 and the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) on October 18-19, the EU released on September 19 a strategy titled "Connecting Europe and Asia - Building Blocks for an EU Strategy," aiming at "sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based connectivity," which "will contribute to enhanced prosperity, safety and resilience of people and societies in Europe and Asia." In substance, this is nothing less than the EU alternative to the Chinese BRI project. Can it work?
The project does not openly admit that it is the alternative to Belt and Road initiative (BRI). There is no mention of BRI in all relevant documents - a first and decisive mistake, because this denial eludes comparison between the two alternatives now at hand. But a comparison is inevitable, and it is far from promising for the European idea. The Chinese level of investment comes close to the whole EU budget for the next 7 to 10 years, of which only a tiny share will be available for the implementation of the latest Connectivity Strategy - a dramatic mismatch, to the disadvantage of the Europeans. And indeed, the content of the strategy is disappointingly weak.
For countries that lie between China and Europe, Central Asian nations in particular, the offer of Chinese investment is lucrative. To put it bluntly, China would simply finance railways, highways, airports, cyber-connections, i.e. the whole infrastructure for long-distance trade, and not emphasize too much on political conditions, "good governance," and other "values" - whereas the EU would finance much less and ask much more: human rights, rule of law, respect for rules of all kinds. Europe's assumed "soft power" is much less tempting than the tangible Chinese assets, at least for Central Asia. The EU project is inherently unattractive for Central Asia.
The misconceptions implied by the connectivity strategy are due to a long-standing European self-overestimation. The EU seems to assume that Europe and China are at a comparable level of development, and that both parties have equal rights to go ahead or slow down their growth, use of resources, and extend their networks. This approach neglects that Europe prevented China from development and modernization for more than a century and half, that China feels that it has the historical right to catch up with the West, that it should no longer submit to Western/European pretended moral superiority - right or wrong, it is at least an understandable Chinese mind-set, if not political conviction, and the Europeans should first of all put themselves in the position of those they want to deal with.
The Europeans should finally recognize that they are a club of small players, as long as their foreign policy is not unified at the European level. China has 17 times the number of people on its territory as the biggest of the Europeans - Germany. And even if the Chinese per capita GDP is still far behind Germany's, there is no doubt that China will continue its catch-up development. Only together, a tightly united, federal Europe will be able to establish itself as a partner of equal stature with China over the next few decades.
As much as the Chinese can claim the right to reach the same level of development as Europe, as much it is evident that there is simply not enough stuff on Earth to feed all the more than 7 billion humans living today - food, plants and animals, water, energy, even air (climate) is limited on this planet. Westerners use more than their just share of all these resources, and developing, growing economies, even if they succeed to continue, will simply have no chance to reach the same level of consumption because there is not enough to share at that level. The problem lies with Westerners, not with the developing countries: The West, Europe, must refrain from using too much, and search intensively in cooperation with China and others ways of pursuing well-being with less consumption.
A connectivity strategy, which is aware of historical burdens and of future challenges, must be based not on a competitive approach between competing projects aiming at satisfying incompatible interests - but on the sincere research of a common ground, a common vision for a viable future, united in diversity. Europe and China are inevitably destined to sit together, with the states in-between, and work on a sort of Memorandum of Agreement. Instead of a conflicting connectivity strategy, we need, on both sides of the Eurasian landmass and everywhere in-between, a "Eurasian Charter" of fundamental rules of really sustainable development.