THE FUTURE OF INTERCONNECTION IN EUROPE
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently warned that multilateralism is under fire at a time when the world needs it most. But international cooperation is precisely the value upon which Europe has built its transformation over the last 70 years. In a recent publication to celebrate its 60th anniversary this year, the European Investment Bank (EIB), the lending arm of the European Union, chose to highlight six mega projects undertaken since its inception to offer a powerful reminder of the transformative power of collaboration and connectivity.
“Interconnectedness has been at the heart of the EIB’s work throughout its history – the introduction states - and it continues to be so today. Across Europe, the Bank’s investment draws the many countries of the European Union closer together. Our support for North Africa, the Middle East and Europe’s Eastern Neighbours creates growth and opportunity in these regions that, in turn, makes our own countries stronger.” (History of EU in 6 projects, EIB, 2018).
While what has been achieved in the past six decades is remarkable in terms of cooperation, interconnections and economic development, more ambitious infrastructure projects are needed if Europe is to stay competitive. Some mega projects have just been completed and others are on the way; some that will further strengthen the connectivity among the member states of the EU and between members and their neighbors. The effort will undoubtely boost growth, sustainability and job creation.
Investment in infrastructure in the EU has been declining since the 2009 financial crisis but has leveled off in the last two years mainly thanks to private investment. According to the EIB Investment report 2018, investment in infrastructure is today at 1.8% of GDP, still 20% below ITS pre-crisis level. The European structural and investments funds are multiplying their efforts to address the investment gap. In 2017, the EIB provided €18 billion to support infrastructure projects. Some of these are destined to change the face of Europe, facilitating communications, providing smoother and faster urban transport, cleaner energy and competitive economies.
Europe’s biggest construction project is under way in the UK: the Crossrail is expected to transform urban transport in London, Europe’s most populous city, increase capacity by 10 per cent and cut travel time. It is one of the largest single infrastructure investments ever undertaken in the country. Construction started in 2009 and the project has encountered several delays and budget overruns and it is now expected to open in 2020. Once finalized, it will cover over 100 km from Reading and Heathrow in the west, through new tunnels under central London to Abbey Wood in the east. It involves 10 new train lines via 118 km of track and 42 km of tunnels.
It is in Europe, on a man-made lake just outside London, where the world's largest floating solar farm powered up in March 2016. The £6m (6.7m Euros) project contains 23,000 panels, which will power a water treatment plant providing clean drinking water to 10 million people across England.
Two of Europe’s biggest mega projects destined to play a vital role in the continent’s future transport network and promote growth and cross-border cooperation are the Fehmarnbelt Fixed Link between Denmark and Germany and the Brenner Base Tunnel (BBT) between Austria and Italy.
The Fehmarn Belt tunnel is a strategic priority for the EU since it is expected to slash travel times between Scandinavia and Germany, but also promote political ties. Brussel is investing €940 million in the project, considered one of the most important initiatives to create pan-European transport corridors, like the Brenner Base Tunnel under the Alps between Austria and Italy.
The latest is a 64 km dual track railway tunnel through the Brenner Pass and once open, it will be the longest underground railway connection in the world. It will run from Innsbruck in Austria to Fortezza in Italy, replacing the current railway. The BBT, expected to open in 2025-2026, is intended to shift cargo from road to rail across Germany and Austria’s Tyrol region, running into Italy.
After 17 years of construction, the Gotthard Base Tunnel opened in Switzerland on June 1, 2016. At 35 miles (kilometer conversion) long, it's both the longest and deepest train tunnel in the world, offering unprecedented efficiency when traveling through the Alps.
While the project is still several years away, Norway has committed €22 billion to the construction of a fully submerged, floating tunnel beneath the Sognefjord, a body of water more than 4,000 feet deep and 3,000 feet wide. It would link two disparate regions and be the first of its kind in the world.
In Sweden, Northvolt is building Europe's biggest electric car battery factory to rival Tesla's 'Gigafactory' in the US and LG Chem's proposed site in Poland. Both Siemens and Scania (owned by Volkswagen) have agreed to contribute to the Northvolt project. Europe’s battery cell demand is projected to reach 200 gigawatt hours by 2025, a market worth an estimated 250 billion euros annually, according to previous comments from the European Commission.
Still in Sweden, the Stockholm Bypass Project, set to be completed in 2025, could reduce traffic in the city by expanding a patch of the European Highway prone to heavy traffic. An additional 13 miles of underground roadway will cost about €3 billion; it'll be the largest tunnel near a city when finished.
At the eastern outskirts of Europe, the Marmaray Project in Istanbul, Turkey is a massive underground railway project that has been underway for more than 12 years. When finished, it will link both sides of the Bosporus Strait, which forms a continental boundary between Europe and Asia. According to Turkey’s Transport Ministry, the 77km long route could open to traffic by the end of the first quarter of 2019.
The EU has given the green light to the construction of a high-speed railway to link six ports across northern Greece and Bulgaria. The project, named Sea2Sea, has an estimated cost of € 3.7 billion. At the same time EU leaders agreed to finance regional transport projects, most notably a railway link between Skopje and Sofia, the capitals of Macedonia and Bulgaria. The railway, which bears a cost of €152 million, is the biggest of seven new transport projects agreed last year for the Balkan region and worth €500 million.
While these are not the only projects underway in Europe, they all point to an increased awareness of the importance of state of the art infrastructure projects to guarantee both better connectivity between member states and to boost competitiveness. And as history teaches us, from the ancient Roman roads to the Silk Road, infrastructure helps facilitate the exchange of products and ideas, ultimately paving the way to prosperity and progress.