The European Union has announced numerous multimillion dollar deals at its Global Gateway Forum, the bloc’s new infrastructure partnership plan that’s seen as an alternative to China’s worldwide Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Organized by the European Commission, the first Global Gateway Forum took place in Brussels on October 25-26.  The event reportedly featured 90 government representatives from more than 20 countries, including 40 leaders and ministers.  According to Silk Road Briefing, heads of state from Armenia, Comoros, Namibia, Mauritania, Senegal, and Somalia attended the event, along with prime ministers from Albania, Bangladesh, Cape Verde, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Georgia, Moldova, Morocco, Rwanda, and Serbia.

However, many EU countries did not send their top officials to attend the gathering, with Germany represented by its climate secretary and Denmark and France by their development secretaries.  Italy did not send any representatives.

In her opening speech, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen vowed to pursue high-quality investments, saying that Global Gateway was a “better choice” for financing and building clean infrastructure.

The Forum was reportedly an invitation only, closed-door event, dominated by politicians and business leaders. Civil society and trade union voices were conspicuously absent.  The event was held to promote the European Commission’s strategy to use development funds to attract private investment in infrastructure in the Global South. It marked a fundamental change to the space for civil society to interact with the European institutions on their development agenda. In the past, events like the annual European Development Days (EDDs) allowed for a more broad and open dialogue.

Some experts consider that EU officials have avoided publicly framing Global Gateway as an alternative to BRI, but the summit in Brussels reportedly comes a week after China gathered representatives of more than 130 countries to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its $1 trillion global investment plan and the EU looks to be prioritizing elements such as transparency and environmental sustainability that have been repeated points of criticism for Beijing’s BRI.

Speaking to Radio Liberty, EU diplomats voiced tacit support for Global Gateway, but expressed concerns that the program faced headwinds from conflicting attitudes among European governments and various EU agencies over how to support the program, as well as doubts about whether Brussels can make more appealing offers to partner countries than China does.

An EU diplomat who requested anonymity in order to speak to the media told RFE/RL that “of course” Global Gateway is a “competitor to BRI but we don’t say that out loud” because then it limits the appeal for partner countries to cut deals with programs by making it appear that cooperation comes with “strings attached.”

The Global Gateway strategy was set up as a European de-risking agenda to compete with Chinese global infrastructure investments through its Belt and Road initiative.  This means that development funds are used to guarantee maximum profits for corporations and asset managers from social infrastructure and public goods.