“The project to build the bridge connecting Croatia’s southernmost peninsula of Peljesac with the mainland is a synthesis of the idea behind the 16+1 cooperation of Eastern and Central European countries and China,” said Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic at the news conference held in Sofia on Saturday after the Summit of the Heads of Government of the 16+1 Platform Countries.
The news conference was held by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov as the host of the summit, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, and Plenkovic, as the prime minister of the country to host the platform’s next summit, to be held in 2019.
Croatia is glad that a major project, the construction of Peljesac Bridge, will connect two cooperation pillars. That is the biggest project of national importance, financed by the EU and built by a Chinese company. The project is a synthesis of the idea that 16+1 is a format that exploits possibilities of cooperation and not one that causes division, Plenkovic said.
His words were confirmed at the news conference by both Borisov and Li, who said that the suspicion that the 16+1 cooperation could cause division in Europe was unfounded.
Commenting on such criticism, Borisov said that all EU rules would be fully respected by the cooperation.
Giving a statement for the press afterwards, Plenkovic was asked where and when in 2019 Croatia could host the 16+1 summit.
“That has been left to us and the Chinese government to decide,” he said, adding that he believed that it would not be good to wait until the end of 2019 because it could weaken the positive momentum of the projects.
Plenkovic explained that he believed the the key reason why Croatia had been chosen to host the next summit was the fact that a Chinese company had won the tender to build Peljesac Bridge.
“That has definitely contributed to the decision to choose Croatia as the host” of the next, eighth summit of the 16+1 cooperation and it will result in other projects in Croatia as well, said Plenkovic.
“I believe that in foreign policy terms it is an important achievement that will improve our position in efforts to develop relations with China… I think that after the signing of the agreement on Peljesac Bridge, additional conditions have been created for cooperation in various sectors,” Plenkovic told reporters.
The contract on the construction of Peljesac Bridge with access roads, worth 2.08 billion kuna (not including VAT) was signed on April 23 by representatives of the Hrvatske Ceste road operator and China Road and Bridge Corporation, and 85% of acceptable costs will be covered by the EU.
Plenkovic did not rule out the possibility that other similar projects could be financed with EU money and involve Chinese companies.
“It is of the utmost importance that public procurement procedures are complied with and that the entire process is transparent. If that is so, there is, naturally, no reason why Chinese companies would not be the ones to win certain contracts,” he said, stressing that it was important for Croatia that “jobs, especially those for subcontractors, be a source of employment and income for Croatian companies as well.”
Speaking of the type of future projects, the Croatian PM said that “now we need a step forward in the field of railway infrastructure and sea ports”.
“We want to develop our cooperation with China in that area.”
Li underlines openness and inclusiveness of 16+1 cooperation.
Along with the prime ministers of Croatia, Bulgaria and China, the Sofia summit was also attended by the prime ministers of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Serbia.
The idea for a platform for cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European countries was born after their first economic-trade forum in 2011 in Budapest. Six years has passed since the first summit held in 2012 and subsequent summits were held in Bucharest, Belgrade, China, Riga and the last was held in Budapest in 2017. The Sofia summit is the seventh.
The cooperation’s objective is to enhance cooperation between Central and Eastern European countries and China in trade and investments, transport connectivity, finance, agriculture, science and technology, health, education and culture.
Li said that China was ready to invest in the region and respect the rule of law, rules of free trade as well as EU rules and that it wished to help the economies of the countries that were still not EU members and those who were but had still not reached the level of development of Western countries.
He underlined that he believed that the 16+1 cooperation should remain open, inclusive and transparent and welcomed the fact that some international organisations and institutions had joined the platform as observers.
Li invited other countries to cooperate with the cooperation, noting that China cooperated with the cooperation both multilaterally and bilaterally and that it also cooperated with EU countries that were not members of the 16+1 platform.
This, he said, would be confirmed by his visit to Berlin, where he travels after Sofia, and his talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as by an EU-China summit to be held later this month.
Ahead of the news conference, numerous bilateral agreements with China were signed, with Croatia signing two agreements for the period from 2018 to 2021, a programme of cooperation in the field of education and a programme of cooperation in the field of health care.
In parallel with the 16+1 summit, a business forum was held in the Bulgarian capital, too, bringing together more than 1,500 participants discussing cooperation in trade, infrastructure, agriculture and tourism.
The 16+1 cooperation is part of China’s One Belt, One Road mega project, a sort of modern-day Silk Road considered to be one of the most ambitious projects in the world.