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The Belt and Road Initiative in the Eastern and Southern EU


EU countries who have signed memoranda of understanding in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have met increasing scepticism and to a certain degree, concern. Yet, it remains unclear whether the official act of becoming part of the BRI brings any significant advantage or disadvantage to signatories, compared to European non-signatories. As the majority of countries who signed BRI MoU are in eastern and southern Europe, this paper focuses on cases selected from these areas, namely, Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, and Greece, Italy and Portugal. Furthermore, despite developments that have seen the BRI developing and taking new shapes (i.e., Digital Silk Road, Medical Silk Road etc.), the focus here is on the original content of the BRI as connectivity and infrastructure project, hence, focusing on the transport, energy and telecommunication sectors. The paper concludes that with the exception of Hungary, as far as EU members are concerned, signing into the BRI amounted to a political sign of goodwill and positive relations, in the hope of enhancing economic advantages. Without arguing that this gesture is with no consequences, this paper shows that it has not brought major new links between the interested parties. There is little ground to argue that membership of the BRI has increased China’s economic and/or political influence and leverage over the Czech Republic, Poland, Greece, Italy or Portugal. Rather than the (signing into) BRI itself, the economic attractiveness and therefore opportunity of China and economic links between the countries might have led to forms of influence, which, however, often pre-dated the BRI and were not enhanced by it. Economic attractiveness would have existed and exercised the same type of influence with or without the BRI.