Against a turbulent geopolitical backdrop and a growing multipolarity in the international system, the European Union (EU) hopes to become a more important global actor through its new Global Gateway strategy. Launched in December 2021, the Global Gateway is a broad connectivity strategy that aims to create smart, sustainable and secure links with countries around the world in the thematic areas of digital, energy and transport. While the focus is clearly on hard and soft infrastructure development and related regulatory frameworks, the initiative also aims to strengthen health, education and research systems across the world.

The EU pledged to mobilise up to €300 billion between 2021 and 2027 in investments in quality infrastructure through a 'Team Europe' approach, bringing together the EU, its member states, the European financial institutions and the private sector. The Global Gateway is the EU's latest effort to adapt its strategy to the geopolitical context and it is clearly framed as an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen laid out the ambition for the Global Gateway to become a trusted brand around the world. It is also the EU's contribution to the G7's commitment to narrow the global infrastructure investment gap in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, what really drove the EU to launch the Global Gateway is the sense that the EU's influence in key regions is diminishing, while China and other powers are gaining in influence.

This has only been heightened by recent events, including COVID-19 and Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The reception of the Global Gateway has been ambiguous, raising interest, scepticism and scorn from some parts of the international press. Some have argued that the €300 billion pledged for the upcoming seven-year financial period amounts to very little. Others have questioned the ability of the EU to mobilise that much investment. Policymakers maintained that criticisms about the lack of new EU resources are misplaced, and miss the strategic impetus of the Global Gateway as a step towards a more cohesive and stronger Europe in the world. It aims to savvily combine hard and soft infrastructure development, promoting EU priorities, values, standards and value addition.

Yet the Global Gateway has raised many questions. Can the EU rival the Chinese BRI? Is the EU overselling or underselling itself? Can the EU mobilise additional resources and political buy-in to match its developmental and geopolitical ambitions? How will the Global Gateway be implemented in practice? How does it fit with existing processes, such as the programming of the Global Europe instrument and the Team Europe approach? How will the EU's partners be involved? What's the place of the private sector?

Despite these unresolved questions, the Global Gateway holds the seeds of something new and politically significant if implemented effectively. The EU's credibility as a global actor will be at stake if the adoption of the strategy is half-hearted and fails to deliver on its promises. The EU and its member states not only have to leverage private investment at scale to meet the ambitious financial target. They must also provide the necessary geopolitical steer, while responding to the developmental needs of their partners worldwide. In addition, they have to step up their collective efforts - beyond the EU budget and institutions - in a coordinated and synergistic manner, in a truly 'Team Europe' spirit. In doing so, they need to clearly articulate the strategic added value of the Global Gateway.

An endorsement of sorts

Earlier this month, the Foreign Ministry briefed that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina would be visiting Brussels, Belgium from October 24-26 to attend the first-ever Global Gateway Forum 2023. Diplomatic sources revealed that there would be three priorities during her trip to Brussels -- joining the global gateway fund through an agreement involving €395 million in loan and grant, discussing the roadmap of future relationship with the EU, and meeting leaders of several EU nations.

The trip has political significance ahead of the next parliamentary polls as it comes after the prime minister's visit to New York and Washington in the United States (US). The EU, alongside the US, has repeatedly called for a free, fair, and peaceful election in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament adopted a resolution last month expressing concern over the deteriorating human rights situation in Bangladesh and reiterating its call to ensure a conducive environment for a free, fair, and inclusive poll in 2024.

Yet on the first day of the Global Gateway Forum, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, together with Prime Minister Hasina, launched the negotiations on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to expand and develop the relationship between the EU and Bangladesh. On this occasion, the EU, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and Bangladesh signed agreements worth €400 million for renewable energy projects to contribute to a sustainable green transition of Bangladesh's power sector and to the achievement of the country's climate mitigation targets. Five additional cooperation actions, worth €70 million, supporting education, decent work, green construction, e-governance and the prevention of gender-based violence were also launched.

Speaking in Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen said: "The EU and Bangladesh have been reliable and trusted partners for 50 years. Now, we are taking this partnership even further, to reap the opportunities of the green transition under Global Gateway. The European Commission, the EIB and Bangladesh will join forces to support renewable energy and tackle climate change. This €400 million investment will make a difference for the people of Bangladesh and its economy".

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said: "We are confident that this initiative will enable developing countries such as Bangladesh to fight climate change, to address infrastructure gaps, invest in renewable energy, digital innovation, healthcare, education and much more. The Global Gateway is a sign of friendship, of partnership, of trust, of symbiotic interdependence".

Focus on Renewables

The €400 million announced between the EU and EIB (€395 million) for renewable energy projects include an EU-guaranteed EIB loan of €350 million, complemented by a blending support package of €45 million that includes technical assistance and an investment grant. In addition, an accompanying Green Energy Transition project worth €12 million which includes €7 million that is co-financed by Germany aims to work on policy, legal framework and investment climate to facilitate an inclusive green energy transition.

Projects will contribute to boost access to energy and rural development throughout Bangladesh, consisting mainly of utility scale solar photovoltaic and onshore wind projects, and potentially associated battery energy storage systems. The operation is expected to contribute to the installation of an estimated 750 MWp of new renewable energy capacity in Bangladesh.

The investments are also likely to improve power distribution and decentralisation, eventually increasing national and, potentially regional, connectivity and resilience. As part of the technical assistance, the EU will help to examine project proposals including ways of combining energy production and food production on the same plot of land, solar, hybrid solar/wind, and solar with battery.

Solar projects and onshore wind projects will be connected to the national grid under the supervision of the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources. The Partnership for Green Energy Transition will help create a Bangladeshi legal framework that fosters investment for the inclusive green energy transition and will also improve employment opportunities for female professionals in the energy sector.

At the Global Gateway Forum, an additional €70 million package in cooperation actions were signed between the EU and Bangladesh in support of the education sector (€30 million), to promote the decent work agenda, to scale up green construction, to boost effective digital governance, and to prevent gender-based violence in public spaces in the country (€10 million in each case).

This year marks the 50th anniversary of EU-Bangladesh diplomatic relations. In this time, the EU has been a trusted development, trade and humanitarian partner to Bangladesh. The relations between the EU and Bangladesh have grown from strength to strength over these five decades to become multidimensional, encapsulating political, trade, development, climate change, connectivity and security concerns.

Familiar to leaders

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Wednesday called upon the European Union to extend its business facilities (GSP+) for six more years for Bangladesh like developing countries to smoothen its journey towards prosperity after LDC graduation.

"I request the European Union to extend its business facilities for six years instead of three years as Bangladesh like least developed countries (LDCs) have now been under pressure economically due to the Covid-19 pandemic and war," Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told a press briefing quoting the prime minister.

While briefing newspersons about Bangladesh Prime Minister's daily engagement in Brussels, he said the extension of business facilities will smoothen the journey of the LDC countries towards prosperity after LDC graduation.

She made the remarks after holding several bilateral talks with European Commission (EC) and European Investment Bank (EIB) and European Parliament leaders.

The prime minister, who arrived in Brussels, Belgium on 24 October evening, attended a total of nine events including the opening plenary session of the Global Gateway Forum and other side events including bilateral talks.

Several bilateral talks were held with EC President Ursula von der Leyen, Trade Commissioner and Executive Vice President of EC Valdis Dombrovskis, Commissioner for Crisis Management of the EC Janez Lenarcic, Vice-President of the European Parliament Nicola Beer, European Investment Bank President Dr Werner Hoyer and Commissioner for International Partnerships of the EC Jutta Urpilainen.

During the talks, each and every person who met her, highly praised Bangladesh's unprecedented development under the prudent leadership of Sheikh Hasina, said Information and Broadcasting Minister Hasan Mahmud, who was present at the meeting.

Replying to a query, he said that the biggest matter was that the invitation for the Prime Minister to join such a world forum in just two months ahead of the upcoming general election has proved that the world and EU stay beside the Prime Minister.

Bangladesh Prime Minister in reply praised the EU for its role in socio-economic development of Bangladesh.

The Foreign Minister said Bangladesh Prime Minister has sought larger investments from the EU countries in Bangladesh referring to the most congenial investment atmosphere in Bangladesh. Rohingyas, climate change and relation issues have come prominently during the meetings with the EU leaders. But no issues on the upcoming election and human rights have come up for discussion, he said.

The foreign minister said Bangladesh is a role model for establishing human rights, justice, human dignity and democracy as 3 million people sacrificed their lives for the noble cause.

Commissioner for Crisis Management of the EC Janez Lenarcic assured Bangladesh of giving additional EUR 10.5 million for the Rohingyas, Momen said.

The Foreign Minister said Bangladesh Prime minister and the EU leaders vowed to elevate the existing 50 years bilateral relations between Bangladesh and EU to another level. To this end, the Prime Minister has given consent to negotiate for signing a partnership agreement with the EU, he said.

Momen said that the Prime Minister today made history after giving her address at the opening plenary session in the Global Gateway Forum conference and all Bangalees should be proud of her.

"She (Sheikh Hasina) has become the attraction of the whole event," he said, adding that claps were being given time and again and all the leaders attending the session rushed to her and praised her for her speech as the Prime Minister appealed to stop the war and arms race in her speech.

To this end, Information and Broadcasting Minister Hasan Mahmud said,"The focus of the plenary session was Sheikh Hasina. Whole international press rushed to cover Sheikh Hasina."

He said the speech of Bangladesh Prime Minister was the most touching and most appealing among the speeches given in the opening plenary session of the Global Gateway Forum.

'Stop war, restore mutual respect'

While addressing the opening plenary session of the Forum, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called upon the global leaders to stop war and restore mutual respect among the nations for ensuring peace and progress.

"Human connectivity is the lifeline for peace and progress. We must put an end to wars, conflicts, and the arms race," she said.

She also sought European Union (EU)'s continued trade preferences for Bangladesh's smooth LDC graduation.

Describing the EU as a trusted trade, development, and humanitarian partner for Bangladesh, she said, "We seek the EU's continued trade preferences for our smooth LDC graduation".

The prime minister also urged EU countries to come up with larger investments in Bangladesh particularly in its special economic zones and high-tech parks being built across the country.

She said Bangladesh offers one of the most attractive investment environments in South Asia.

"So, I invite EU investors to explore the facilities in our Special Economic Zones and Hi-Tech Parks," she said.

She also said they have scope for working further on decent work and the circular economy.

The prime minister, as well, stressed the need for better preparation and restoring mutual respects to tackle future crises as the world has currently been witnessing the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and Israeli attack on Gaza.

"We need to prepare better for future crises. We must restore faith in mutual respect and understanding among nations," she said.

The prime minister expressed her optimism that the Global Gateway will act as a great connector for lasting peace and sustainable development, wishing all success of the Global Gateway Forum 2023.

She also said Bangladesh is willing to join the EU in promoting green hydrogen.

"We can benefit from the EU's expertise in the sustainable use of marine resources. We need investment in cold chain networks to preserve our agricultural outputs," she said.

The prime minister said Bangladesh's pharmaceuticals and medical equipment industries can support the EU's efforts for diversifying production.

"We seek partners for our upcoming institutes on frontier technologies," she said.

Sheikh Hasina said Bangladesh's dynamic young population is ready to join the EU's skills and talent partnership programmes.

"We trust the Global Gateway will help realise our vision for a 'Smart Bangladesh' by 2041," she said.

The prime minister said they have fruitful cooperation in security, climate change, and human mobility.

"Our shared values and commitments remain at the heart of our engagements with the EU," she added.

The prime minister said they officially launched negotiations on a bilateral partnership and cooperation agreement.

"We signed a landmark contract with EIB for a 350 million-euro loan for investment in renewable energy," she said.

On this 50th anniversary of Bangladesh-EU relations, she said, "I reaffirm our commitment to further strengthen our strategic engagements."

The prime minister said Bangladesh is now the world's 35th largest economy as our 70-billion-dollar economy has grown into 465 billion in less than 15 years.

We have lifted millions of our people out of poverty. Extreme poverty has come down to 5.6 per cent from 25.1 per cent in 2006. Bangladesh is set to graduate from UN LDC status in 2026," she said.

She said her government has moved in a planned way to ensure food security, universal school enrollment, community-based healthcare, safe water and sanitation, cost-free housing, rural communication, disaster resilience, climate adaptation, 100 per cent electricity coverage, nation-wide internet, industrial growth, infrastructure development, and most importantly, women's empowerment.

"We have decided to move from climate vulnerability to resilience and prosperity," she added.

Sheikh Hasina said her father, Father of the Nation of Bangladesh Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, wanted to see Bangladesh as a regional bridge-builder.

With 170 million people, she said Bangladesh is strategically located between South and Southeast Asia and it has the potential to become a trading hub for 3 billion consumers in the region.

Additional reporting by UNB

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