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March 27, 2017

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One Belt, One Road: A new model of interregionalism

THE One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR) first proposed by the Chinese government in 2013 is one of the most fascinating and ambitious interregional cooperation projects worldwide.

It is truly “megaregional” in its aim to involve up to 65 countries and represent about 70 percent of the global population. As such, it might not only significantly shape the international trade architecture, but also contribute to more open and inclusive global governance.

In this prospect, the European Union (EU), as one of the biggest common markets worldwide and a significant actor in international relations, will have the chance to be a major partner in this project of connecting East and West more closely. To make this cooperation work in practice, however, is probably the most contentious challenge of the project.

The necessity for closer relations and economic exchange that is shared amongst Chinese as well as European policymakers will, sooner or later, have to address the question of how their rather divergent approaches of regionalism — network versus norm-based — can be brought together, by which means a sustainable interregional cooperation can be organized and lead to concrete actions.

The highest hurdle in this process will not lie in divergent interests between China and the EU’s member states, but in the political as well as legal architecture of the EU itself. It must not be neglected that in the course of its history, the European Union has not only developed a number of independent supranational institutions equipped with far-reaching competences, but also an autonomous legal order.

Walter Hallstein, the first President of the Commission of the European Economic Community, once aptly remarked that a “community of states under the rule of law can only be a community of law.”

The EU is such a community and not only its political representatives but also the European Court of Justice will continue to define and safeguard the EU’s legal autonomy.

This foundation of the EU — though often downplayed by its critiques — will show its significance in the upcoming process of exploring compatibilities and find common rules for exchange. It will limit the possible organizational designs OBOR can take if Europe plays a central role as a partner in China’s far-reaching initiative.

More concretely, even though the EU is willing to commit to more free and fair trade with China, it can hardly decide to roll back the legal basis and its normative standards it is founded on. The endless negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the deadlocked positions in this process — especially about product standards, consumer and environment protection — have shown the obstacles here.

More than just cooperation

Given this background, the pragmatic and open approach of the OBOR is much welcomed, but might also prove as rather opposed to the EU’s model of regional integration.

This does not mean that there is not much room for cooperation and innovation. On the contrary, mere cooperation and increased connectivity will not be enough for the EU to make a more serious commitment towards the OBOR than it has done so far.

The EU will insist on a more holistic approach that would not only comprise economic cooperation, but also legal institutionalization, such as a standing OBOR dispute settlement body.

To explore the chances for such an open and pragmatic yet rule- and institution-based approach will be the eminent task that China has to face together with the EU in the coming months and years.

Both sides would be well advised to take this task seriously and to move towards each other, since the result has the potential to be nothing less than a new and innovative model of interregionalism.


Dr. Andreas Grimmel is Research Associate and Lecturer at the Institute for Political Science at Universität Hamburg and at the Institute for European Integration, Europa-Kolleg in Hamburg. He currently is a Visiting Scholar at the Fudan Development Institute (FDDI) in Shanghai. His research includes European Union politics and European integration, regional integration, international organizations as well as political theory and philosophy. Shanghai Daily condensed the article.


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