The Belt and Road Initiative shapes the dimensions of our common future, especially in the entry regions to the EU. This situation makes the CEE region of high importance for the future development of BRI and the impact of the format of cooperation “17+1” will rice up over the years to come.  Today we face serious challenges and we have also high expectations: the goal for “giant” Eurasia market, further integration of the CEE region, closing the gap between EU and Russia, the presence of European companies in the Asia-pacific region, the next level of cooperation between EU and China as a strategic one, etc.

by Aleksandar Dimitrov

As was said many times before, the Belt and Road Initiative is a huge project with extremely high impact (if all finish according to plan) over the territories that passes. Most of the experts and the usual audience related to BRI is familiar with the facts released in the public space.

Of course two dates are very important, the first one is the opening of the land route on 7 September 2013 in Kazakhstan and the second is the opening of the maritime route on 3 October 2013 in Indonesia. The general audience rarely perceive the Belt and Road Initiative in its two dimensions. First, by land where the “new silk road” is emerging as a highly profitable economic belt and second, by sea connecting 3 continents. This was just the beginning.

Deepening the understanding of BRI is more obvious how the two concepts (the two routes) coexist together into one giant project. Both envisage the construction of highly integrated and mutually beneficial maritime and land economic corridors linking European and Asian markets. This is without any doubt an ambitious vision for transforming the economic and, to some extent, the political agenda and their environment. In its final stage the BRI will growingly influence the local and regional economies and their political regimes becoming crucial and indispensable factor for their development.

From an academic point of view, the BRI can be examined exclusively as a long-term project with global strategic impact that goes beyond the borders of Eurasia and even includes Africa and if we are optimistic Australia and for some scholars even Latin America. But I will talk for a far more specific scope, the format of cooperation 16/17 + 1.  The “17+1” is founded in 2012 in Budapest, Hungary. It is an important form of cooperation where the underdeveloped Central and Eastern Europe (compared with Western Europe) and China can benefit from each other.  For the countries of the region, the logic of the initiative is clear – China is expanding its economic influence in a global scale. But at the same time, there are a lot of ways for mutually beneficial partnerships and projects of common interest and during the past years the political and economic practices within the format proved that point.

Speaking of partnership, the CEE countries have its specifics. The region is not homogeneous, but quite the opposite – too heterogeneous with a lot differences and strict national interests. Some countries have enhanced cooperation between each other and with China in particular while others remain passive. Some of the countries are members of EU, some are not, etc. But the differences are compensated by some other circumstances:

  • There are no historical contradictions or significant international confrontations between CEE countries and China neither on political or economic level.
  • CEE countries are among the first to recognize the People’s republic of China, with Bulgaria in particular being the second country to recognize China after the Soviet Union (a political subject that no longer exists)

The above facts are good basis for good relations and partnership and the format itself is based on this expectations, although the different status of the countries often leads to the restriction of more active relations or lack of decisiveness.

After six years of development of BRI and 7 years of existence if “17+1” it can be said that to this date the relations of the involved countries are moving at a higher level, i.e. EU-China (and not including with the same strength the non EU member states). The fact that 12 countries are already EU member states has significantly increased the region’s importance to China (having in mind the willingness of some non-EU member states to become part of the Union). This is in the same time a plus and a minus for China, but in the long run the potential is far more appealing than potential risks.

We are already witnessing annual meetings (Prime Minister level) – in Bucharest, Belgrade, Suzhou, Riga, Budapest and Sofia. During the past years numerous economic events, sectoral events, etc. were released. All efforts made possible the creation of a number of industrial organizations and investment mechanisms improving the impact and the reputation of the format. The activity has also increased at the interstate level, making the commitments of different countries much more specific and with greater responsibility.

Few words about the EU-China relationship framework, regarding “17+1”:

  • The attitude is changing from distrust to recognition;
  • A new phase on developing and implementing an EU-China 2020 Strategic Partnership Agenda is on the move
  • The region is recognized as a major hub for the new Silk Road – which reveals a lot of opportunities for cities, regions and countries

But maybe not all of you remember that 2015 was the year of rethinking and in 2016, the 16 + 1 format was formally recognized as a sub-regional cooperation framework; and then a new backward with the European Commission reserves in 2017 and J. Katainen’s Comments and Perceptions on Chinese Investment as treat and huge risk for European economies; and then again a step forward – new EU vision in 2018 for better connectivity between Europe and Asia

Now, what 2019 brought us… for what to work and what to expect in the years to come:

First, the CEE countries take part in creation of a “giant” common Eurasian market;

Second, the 17+1 framework is a kind of accelerator for the integration processes in Europe, especially in CEE, where this is of vital necessity;

Third, such cooperation can overcome the serious alienation between the EU and the Russian Federation;

Forth, the BRI will increase the presence of more European companies in the Asia-Pacific region;

Fifth, such huge cooperation is opportunity for the EU to increase its global impact too;

Sixth, the next level of development in EU-China relations suggests point of view that put them exclusively as strategic relationships;

Finally, BRI is an opportunity for CEEC and for the EU to balance the Atlantic relations , especially in the Trump era.

Key words: China, EU, CEEC, Belt and Road, global cooperation

The first and second forums for the exchange of research between Eastern European and Chinese countries took place in 2016 and 2017 in Warsaw, Poland and Budapest, Hungary;

Photo:, Editor-in-Chief Shan Xiaobing