Five years on, European countries still hold mixed views on the China-proposed Belt and Road initiative (BRI) toward which there has been no unified EU policy. How to go behind the understanding of European countries on the initiative? What can be done to dispel suspicions? Global Times (GT) reporters Yu Jincui and Yu Haoyuan talked to Massimo D’Alema (D’Alema), former prime minister of Italy and honorary chairman of the Silk Road Cities Alliance, at the Silk Road Ark Forum which was co-hosted by the Silk Road Cities Alliance, Silk Road City Institute and Beijing Belt and Road Cooperative Community recently in Beijing.GT: This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Belt and Road initiative. More than 130 countries and international organizations have signed agreements on the initiative with China, including some European nations. As you observe, what is the process of understanding the BRI for Westerners or Europeans?
D’Alema: I think the Belt and Road initiative has so far been successful, because of the incredible amount of new projects which have been financed, particularly infrastructure, and for the large number of countries that are involved in it. Of course, the Chinese initiative is changing not only the economic scenario, but also the political one. That’s why there are not only countries in favor of the initiative, but also opposed to it.
Take Europe. The continent is divided. On one side, there are countries who want to take the opportunity of the Belt and Road initiative to attract Chinese investments, but on the other side, there are European nations and companies concerned about the growing economic and political influence of China. The big problem is how we can overcome these obstacles and uncertainties. This is I believe a big challenge for the next year.
GT: As you just said, some Europeans are skeptical about the Belt and Road initiative. Can you offer some suggestions on how to alleviate their misgivings and how China can better promote the initiative in Europe?
D’Alema: First, I think there is something that Europe should do. I believe that the relationship with China is, or at least should be, a strategic choice for Europe. While the last China-EU summit was a good and positive step, so far the relationship with China is something left to the initiative of a single country, not the European Union. We have to push for a strong and strategic relationship between the EU and China.
Second, there is something China has to do. Several months ago, 27 out of 28 EU ambassadors issued a report criticizing the Belt and Road initiative, claiming it is only advantageous to China. The view is not true. But it’s important for the Chinese government to understand that China has to take the initiative to eradicate this impression.
Some Europeans are concerned about the trade imbalance between China and Europe. We should create more balanced relations between China and Europe in order to prevent opinion building up that the Belt and Road initiative will only benefit China. Europe has competitive advantage in services in its relations with China, which should further open up its service sector. I believe that China has to act to offer Europeans a more open market.
In order to share benefits of the Belt and Road initiative, I believe it will be a good thing to coordinate Chinese investments in Europe with the European strategy of development and European priorities. Better coordination and reciprocity – I think is the way to overcome the current uncertainties and develop the entire potential of the initiative.
GT: It has been reported that China and Italy are drawing up a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on Belt and Road cooperation. What role can Italy play in the Belt and Road plan? What can BRI cooperation with China bring to Italy?
D’Alema: The old friendship between China and Italy is based not only on political choice but also human feelings. China and Italy represent two influential civilizations and culture which know and respect each other. The current Italian government is committed to strengthening relations with China. I come to China very often and I tried to explain to my Chinese friends that wine is not only French, but originally, wine was a typical symbol of the Roman Empire. Also, technology is not only German, because Italy is competitive in both wine industry and technology. Italy may be a very good partner of China in several fields.
GT: Populism is rising in Italy and across Europe. Are you concerned about it? How to deal with rise of populism?
D’Alema: Yes, I’m concerned about it, but you have to understand the effects of globalization on Italian society. We are talking about Italy, but we can start from the US. Why do blue-collar workers in the US vote for Trump who advocates protectionism? In China the effect of globalization was, of course, also creating inequality, but in the end all Chinese benefit from globalization. In our societies, a few people become very rich. But for many workers, globalization means relocation of factories, reduction in wages and social welfare protection, because the public budget is unable to sustain a welfare state. This led many European countries’ fear to prevail over trust and hope. This is why many people, particularly the poor, support populism.
Populism is not the solution and it will only make social issues more difficult to resolve. In order to overcome the dangerous trend, we have to change the course of globalization and create conditions for a more harmonious globalization, and this is particularly a big challenge for the new generation.