China’s bridge into Europe
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.
A state-owned Chinese firm has begun building a bridge linking Dubrovnik to the rest of Croatia.