The European Union launched its Global Gateway initiative in December 2021, but its results have not yet matched the expectations it raised. If it is to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Global Gateway must be bold, green, digital, and ethical. The digital alliance that the EU is setting up in Latin America and the Caribbean provides an opportunity for the EU to put its money where its mouth is.
On 14 March, the executive vice-president of the European Commission, Margrethe Vestager, and several ICT ministers from Latin America and the Caribbean established the EU – Latin America and Caribbean (EU-LAC) Digital Alliance – one of the European Commission’s initiatives launched in the framework of the Global Gateway programme. The alliance will focus on three pillars: investments in connectivity, aimed at closing the gap in internet access between the region and the EU, and within and between the countries of the region; cybersecurity, where despite the great progress made by the region, significant gaps remain that threaten citizens, businesses, and sovereign states alike; and digital rights, a field of enormous potential, as both regions share a human-centric approach to digital transformation.
The project is of major strategic importance and potential for the EU. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given new prominence to the EU’s relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean. The region comprises 33 countries which are key to sustaining a rules-based multilateral order and whose votes China and Russia have courted in the United Nations General Assembly. There are also massive investment opportunities in the green and digital sectors in Latin America and the Caribbean, making it an important region in the EU’s search for strategic autonomy. However, relations between the two regions have gone through numerous ups and downs since leaders first spoke of a “strategic association” at an EU-LAC summit in Rio in 1999. In recent years, the EU financial crisis, the United States’ lack of interest in the region, and the covid-19 pandemic have allowed China and, to a lesser extent, Russia to expand their presence in the region: while EU trade with the region doubled between 2008 and 2018, China’s trade multiplied tenfold thanks to its strategic approach through the BRI, which has added to China’s already significant foreign direct investment flows and loans to the region.
The EU is seeking to revitalise this relationship. But for the EU-LAC partnership to be successful, it is essential that these political agreements and declarations are accompanied by a meaningful investment agenda and package, as well as a clear roadmap for implementation. So far, the EU’s approach to the region has focused on programmes such as the Bella submarine cable connecting Europe and the region and the Copernicus Earth observation satellite system, which lack the scale to change perceptions of the EU. For its part, the Global Gateway programme is far from mobilising the €300 billion in investments initially announced, and the €3.5 billion earmarked for investment in Latin America is insufficient to alter the strategic balance in a region where the required investment just for connectivity is estimated at $51 billion.
The digital transition that the EU and the countries of the region want to promote could be the catalyst for a change of step in relations. But for this to be feasible, certain conditions must be met. Firstly, if the Global Gateway is to be attractive for the region and effectively compete with the BRI, it must rebalance its geographical focus to pay more attention to the region. At present, 60 per cent of projects are focused on sub-Saharan Africa, while only 20 per cent are devoted to Latin America, and another 20 per cent to Asia. It should then focus more efforts on digital initiatives: currently, energy and green transition initiatives make up 80 per cent of projects, while digital initiatives account for 15 per cent and social initiatives for 5 per cent. The projects identified in the digital field are almost exclusively focused on connectivity issues, such as financing fibre, cable, satellite, and 5G investments.
Closing connectivity gaps is urgent. Currently, over 35 per cent of Latin Americans still do not have access to a fixed broadband internet connection, and 20 per cent do not have mobile broadband access – twice the average for OECD countries – concentrated in the lowest income quintile and rural and remote areas. However, the digital agenda in 2023 must be one of transformation, not just connectivity. It should therefore include issues such as cybersecurity, the digitisation of public administrations and services (including health, migration, justice, and taxation), training and education in key skills, the regulation of artificial intelligence, and data governance. Alongside the deployment of 5G and investment in digital, technical, and soft skills, this would bring the financing requirements for the region closer to $300 billion, which is 3 per cent of regional GDP.
To address these geographical and thematic imbalances, the region therefore requires a more intensive European investment plan. The Global Gateway envisages mobilising private financial resources by setting up co-financing mechanisms from development banks, in particular the European Investment Bank, the CAF bank, Central American Bank for Economic Integration, and the Inter-American Development Bank. Despite the current meagre projections, it should be possible to mobilise the funding. After all, the EU is the leading foreign direct investor in Latin America, its telecom companies are global players, it plays a pioneering role in digitalisation in banking, insurance, infrastructure, energy, public services, industry, agriculture, and mining, and it holds first-class cybersecurity and hybrid threats capabilities. The launch of the digital alliance is expected to be accompanied by a business meeting of key Euro-Latin American companies, which, if confirmed at high-level, is a promising sign.
The EU’s digital agenda is attractive to third parties compared to China’s BRI because it includes green, social, and ethical components, making it an ally of the green transition, not a competitor. Many of its initiatives contribute to both digital and green goals, including the development of the ‘internet of things’ for the design of smart cities, the use of big data and cloud data to monitor the temperature of the oceans, and artificial intelligence applied to the protection of biodiversity.
Europe’s rights-based, human-centric approach to digitalisation should also appeal to Latin America and the Caribbean. The region is seeking to align its approach with that of the EU, with a special focus on social, gender, and territorial inequalities and inclusiveness, which are not Chinese priorities. The cost of these inequalities is huge: achieving full gender parity in Latin America would expand the region’s GDP by $2.6 trillion – the equivalent of Brazil’s economy. Closing the internet access gap and investing in skills will help reduce these inequalities in the region, especially among women and in rural areas, and help younger generations.
The Global Gateway has been criticised for over-promising and under-delivering. The EU-LAC Digital Alliance offers an opportunity for the EU to show the worth of the Global Gateway and demonstrate that it can offer an alternative to the Chinese Digital Silk Road.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.