The 16+1 platform – an obstacle for the EU?

Since several decades, the Western world has been criticizing the Chinese expansion on the African continent, where the Chinese pour financial aid without imposing any democratic clause to developing countries’ authorities. This strategy is in sharp opposition to that of the Western world, which has always linked the financial support granted to developing countries to the requirement of a democratic transition.

This week, Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner responsible for the European neighbourhood policy and enlargement expressed his disagreement with the Chinese format of cooperation developed for the Central-Eastern European region, which is founded on the same logic.

The 16+1 Platform

In 2011, the People’s Republic of China launched a platform for cooperation with 11 EU Member States from Central-Eastern Europe and 4 Balkan countries. The initiative was created with the aim of intensifying cooperation among China and the region. The Members of this forum are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, The Republic of North Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The cooperation focuses especially on areas such as transport, finance, science, education and culture. On top of this, Chinese authorities have defined three potential priority areas: infrastructure, which is still a high priority for these countries, high tech and green technologies, fields in which China can showcase its expertise.

The wave of criticism

Ever since it was created – and especially last week – the platform has been criticized by EU officials, who claim that it constitutes an alternative method which could reduce the efficiency of EU-China cooperation. According to them, this framework is a time-consuming platform which takes up precious resources which should instead be spent on strengthening and improving EU-China cooperation.

But EU officials are not the only ones who have raised concerns over the 16+1 efficiency. The platform brings together China, Balkan countries and EU Member States, but not all of them. As a result, the framework is based on a two-way cooperation system, where EU Member States, which must comply with EU legislation, and non-EU Members don’t have access to the same opportunities provided within the framework. The recent meetings have shown how the 16+1 Members have started to perceive the uneven effects of this method.

This can be well exemplified by the regulations governing infrastructure. While according to EU legislation infrastructure contracts must be open to competition, the Chinese method has drawn criticism as it seems to work in the opposite way. In other words, China’s state-owned banks have often allocated investments selecting Chinese contractors for the projects.

The political consequences

While officially the cooperation has little to do with politics, the implication of this platform extend far beyond the economic area. The unconditioned investments have indebted the weakest economies in the region and might encourage the wave of authoritative nationalism which has been sweeping Europe in more recent years. This is especially true in reference to countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, where nationalism is growing stronger. Simultaneously, the Balkans constitute a key factor in the EU neighbourhood policy. An example? The region constitutes a key part of migration routes to the EU in a moment when migration is acquiring increasing importance for EU politics and policy.

In an international context like the current one, the EU cannot afford to allow such expansion of Chinese influence, mostly because it could lead to instability in neighbouring countries, or even within the EU borders. The latest EU-China summit seems to have produced (at least officially) an increased cooperation between these two major powers, but if the good intentions are to be put into practice, China and the EU will need to solve the contradictions of these two co-existing frameworks.

Author: Ljuba Ferrario

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