The European Union intends to fund sustainable transport connections between Europe and Central Asia. The ‘Trans-Caspian Corridor’ initiative is part of Brussels’ Global Gateway strategy, aimed at identifying a transport network to maximize the economic potential of five Central Asian countries, leverage their economic potential, and efficiently interlink them with each other – and with Europe.
The plan is an alternative to China's much disputed Belt and Road Initiative, through which many countries are becoming increasingly financially and politically dependent on Beijing. If implemented as intended, these countries would directly benefit from the EU advance: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The plan is result of a study on sustainable transport connections in large parts of Central Asia, conducted by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and fully funded by Brussels. It targets a vast territory stretching from Almaty (Kazakhstan) in the East, to Turkmenbashi (Turkmenistan) at the shores of the Caspian Sea in the West, with a total population of 77 million.
While introducing the study, the EU Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, emphasized that the project “opens up opportunities for interested public and private sector investment in key connectivity projects that fulfil strict sustainability requirements and have been identified in close consultation with the partner countries. The study is a solid basis to work together on making the Trans-Caspian corridor more efficient as soon as possible.”
In the study, sustainability is understood in a holistic sense, taking into account environmental, socio-economic, financial, fiscal sustainability, as well as political viability. This overarching approach distinguishes the EU initiative from the Chinese Silk Road project, in which environmental and socio-economic aspects play no or only very minor roles.
The roadmap for establishing the Trans-Caspian Corridor was conducted between November 2021 and June 2023. In terms of transport modes, it focuses on rail and road as well as maritime connections (Caspian and Black Seas). The overarching aim is to connect the five aforementioned Central Asian states with the EU’s extended Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) following a corridor assessment. Once done, it will prioritize the single projects to be funded. The EU paper names up to 33 different sectors and individual measures such as the modernization or reconstruction of existing railway tracks and transnational roads, investing in additional rail/road links, port capacity expansion, upping the rolling stock, establishing logistics centers including warehouse capacity, etc.
In addition to optimizing the physical infrastructure, the study focuses on ‘soft’ connectivity by enhancing customs procedures, harmonizing legal and regulatory conditions and existing bilateral agreements between the various countries concerned, and establishing multi-modal connecting points along these corridors.
Commissioner for Transport, Adina Vălean, says: “This comprehensive Study has taken on significant geopolitical importance in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The coherent transport corridor approach will contribute to the competitiveness, economic attractiveness, and operational efficiency of transport networks in Central Asia […] I look forward to bringing Europe and Central Asia closer together through sustainable transport links.”
New EU focus: Central Asia
The roadmap for the Trans-Caspian Corridor was done following the assessment of the current situation of transport networks in the Central Asian region, as well as consultations with stakeholders including not only the five countries themselves, but also EU Member States, relevant UN bodies, international organizations and associations, international financial institutions, civil society organizations, interest groups, among many others.
It complements EU plans unveiled in JUN23, to invest EUR 5.4 billion in key infrastructure projects across the 27 member states to enhance transport links, improve safety and interoperability, and create new jobs.
Pressure is mounting on Italy to step out of BRI
Meanwhile, André Gattolin, a French senator acting as vice-chair of the European Affairs Committee for France, advocated that Italy should exit China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and switch to alliances run by democratic countries. In a contribution to Politico he recommends to “prioritize alliances with the EU, G7 member states, and various transatlantic democratic allies.” He substantiates his recommendations by saying that Italy and China do not share many values, making conflicts inevitable. Moreover, the French politician fears that Italian ports such as Genoa, Trieste, or Venice, which are of paramount importance for the entire EU, might end up in Chinese hands, thus threatening Italy’s security. A warning example is the Greek port of Piraeus, which has been run by the Chinese since 2016 after shipping company Cosco purchased 67% of the port. Ever since, no decision can be taken there anymore that is not consented by the new owners. Italy joined the new Silk Road initiative in 2019. The current treaty expires in MAR24. The Meloni government has to decide to renew the membership or exit BRI until 31DEC23.
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