China’s bridge into Europe

Toronto Star - - INSIGHT - MARC SANTORA AND BAR­BARA SURK

As a quirk of his­tory and the Balkan wars, a cor­ner of Croa­tia is cut off from the rest of the coun­try by a 12-mile in­ter­rup­tion of land be­long­ing to neigh­bour­ing Bos­nia. It is a rift that Croa­tia has long wanted to re­pair with a bridge that would unite the dis­con­nected sliver of its coast with the rest of the coun­try.

For decades — foiled by war, cor­rup­tion, po­lit­i­cal bick­er­ing and global fi­nan­cial tur­moil — work never got much fur­ther on the bridge than aban­doned con­crete py­lons and two bronze an­gels over­look­ing the glit­ter­ing wa­ters of the Adri­atic Sea. That is, un­til the Chi­nese ar­rived in the sum­mer. With drills churn­ing and its engi­neers ar­riv­ing daily, a state-owned Chi­nese con­struc­tion firm, the China Road and Bridge Corp., is the lat­est com­pany to take on the project.

For many Croa­t­ians, just the pos­si­bil­ity that the long-awaited bridge project is on track to be com­pleted is rea­son for cel­e­bra­tion.

But the project is also a test case for the Eu­ro­pean Union, which has been wary of al­low­ing state-owned Chi­nese firms into the mar­ket for big Eu­ro­pean in­fra­struc­ture pro­jects, fear­ing that Chi­nese com­pa­nies can un­der­mine com­pe­ti­tion, tram­ple the bloc’s labour laws and de­press wages.

The bridge, which will span the wa­ter sep­a­rat­ing a penin­sula in the dis­con­nected re­gion with the vil­lage of Komarna and the rest of Croa­tia, is the first time a project funded largely with Eu­ro­pean Union money has been won by a Chi­nese firm.

China Road and Bridge won the con­tract with a pro­posal that un­der­cut the near­est com­peti­tor by nearly $100 mil­lion, lead­ing to a le­gal chal­lenge. The Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion is also in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether Croa­tia awarded the con­tract in line with Eu­ro­pean Union rules.

On top of the con­cerns of­fi­cials have over com­pet­i­tive prac­tices and lower wages, many of the jobs that come with the project might not even go to work­ers in the slow-grow­ing economies of Europe.

Typ­i­cally, Chi­nese state firms bring most of their own work­ers for con­struc­tion pro­jects, an of­ten con­tentious prac­tice.

On a re­cent af­ter­noon at the con­struc­tion site, Jeroslav Segedin, a civil en­gi­neer, gave a tour of the early stages of the project. Segedin, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Croa­tia Roads, which con­tracted with the Chi­nese com­pany for the project, stressed the im­por­tance of the bridge, de­spite the con­cerns about Bei­jing’s in­volve­ment.

“It means a lot to both Croa­tia and this re­gion,” he said. “It will be a na­tional sym­bol for Croa­tia.”

Eu­ro­pean Union of­fi­cials say they will be watch­ing China’s re­cruit­ment process for work­ers closely, once it gets un­der­way, for pos­si­ble vi­o­la­tions of the bloc’s labour laws.

Even so, the Chi­nese have al­ready been al­lowed to set the wages for the work­ers they bring to the site — some­thing that Eu­ro­pean com­pa­nies fear is an un­fair ad­van­tage.

ZORAN MARINOVIC THE NEW YORK TIMES

A state-owned Chi­nese firm has be­gun build­ing a bridge link­ing Dubrovnik to the rest of Croa­tia.

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