EU Concerned Over Croatia Bridge Project
After decades of consideration, work on a bridge in Croatia, linking the country’s southernmost Dubrovnik-Neretva County to the rest of the mainland, crossing Mali Ston Bay, is finally underway, but the European Union remains wary of letting state-owned Chinese firms work on large European infrastructure projects.
According to The New York Times, all that remains of previous forays into building the bridge are abandoned concrete pylons and a couple of bronze angels.
Bridge Project History
The primary point of contention that previously kept the bridge from being built was concern over maritime borders: The government of Bosnia and Herzegovnia (BIH) maintained that the boundary needed to be clearly drawn before work could begin.
In Aug. 2017, before any bridge deal was struck, the Bosniak Member of the Presidency of BIH Bakir Izetbegovic noted that the country did not dispute Croatia’s right to link parts of its territory, but BIH should also not be denied access to the open ocean. At the time, Izetbegovic went on to add that the BIH had maintained this stance since 2007. The Peljesac Bridge project went out for bid in September 2017.
China Road and Bridge Corporation won the bid to work on the project with its 2.08 billion kuna (around $340 million) offering. The E.U. provided 85 percent of the funding for the 2,000-meter-long (roughly 6,500-foot-long) cable-stayed bridge. According to Ponting Bridges, the structure’s design features an orthotropic steel deck, with the central part of the bridge being built using a balanced cantilever construction method. Ponting was responsible for preparing the bridge’s preliminary and final design. Construction began in July.
Tomislav Mihotic, State Secretary of the Ministry of Transport, noted that it was imperative that as many Croatian subcontractors as possible remained involved in the project. The maritime boundary issue remains, but no one has issued a stop to the project. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik announced on Thursday (Oct. 12) that he would not greenlight a lawsuit filed by Sarajevo with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. The lawsuit deals with the construction of the new bridge.
While the Peljesac Bridge has been hailed as a necessity by many Croatians, the E.U. remains concerned over business practices: China Road and Bridge’s proposal undercut the nearest competitor by nearly $100 million, which has led to some legal issues. Currently, the European Commission is investigating whether the contract was awarded in line with E.U. rules.
Employment matters are another concern: It remains unclear how many of the jobs will go to locals, as many Chinese state firms bring their own workers for construction projects. It also remains unclear if Croatian officials know how much workers are being paid.
China’s recent attention to and investment in international infrastructure projects is known as the Belt and Road Initiative, which is intended to better Beijing’s economic and diplomatic standing. Criticism remains apace of activity, however. (European companies are finding it increasingly difficult to compete with Chinese-subsidized companies regarding price levels, economic analyst Jens Bastian told The New York Times.)
E.U. officials will be keeping a close eye on how China recruits laborers, though the country has already been allowed to set wages for the workers it brings to the site. The E.U. fears this is an unfair advantage.