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“Three Seas Initiative” for Eastern Europe (8/2)     Print Email

By: Joseph Bebel, Washington D.C.

In early July, Poland welcomed European and American officials to a summit of the Three Seas Initiative (TSI) in Warsaw. The main goal of the summit was to begin plans for the implementation of the initiative that hopes to increase cooperation on trade, energy, and infrastructure between the EU member states of Central and Eastern Europe. U.S. President Donald Trump was the keynote speaker at the summit and was joined by representatives from Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, and a handful of other Eastern European nations. In his remarks, President Trump declaredthe U.S. the “strongest ally and steadfast partner” of the initiative.

TSI is a joint Polish-Croatian project that aims to create a North-South corridor in Eastern Europe that connects nations bordering the Adriatic, Baltic, and Black Seas. Currently, 12 nations—Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria—have pledged support for the initiative. In the joint “Dubrovnik Statement,” the leaders of the participating nations agreed that connecting Central and Eastern European economies is essential to “complete the single European market.”

There are hopes that TSI will help Central and Eastern EU members strengthen their economic and political posture within the European Union. Polish President Andrzej Duda, considered the unofficial leader of TSI, calls the effort “a vital task” as focusing on improving infrastructure “will tie Central [and Eastern] Europe to the whole of Europe.” Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic has emphasized that TSI will be crucial in “removing differences between the EU members” as newer members catch-up to the bloc’s more developed participants.

Improving energy security is a key aspect of the initiative. President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania has underscored the importance of TSI in “ensuring energy independence” by “eliminating dependence on a single source,” alluding to the region’s heavy dependence on Russian gas that could be further exasperated by the proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Along with support for the project come concerns about the initiative. Some in Germany, worry that TSI is a revival of the old Central European “Intermarium” project proposed by Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski following World War I. The project was meant to facilitate a Polish-dominated coalition of Central and Eastern European states that would prevent domination by either the Russians or the Germans. Even some Central and Eastern European nations are wary of such an agreement. The Czech Republic declined to attend the recent summit in Warsaw citing the “20th century neo-imperial origin” of the initiative as problematic.

Others in the EU worry that TSI will threaten the future stability of the 28-member bloc. One EU diplomat told Reuters that TSI is a “bit suspicious” and could be an “attempt to break up European unity.” Fanning such apprehensions, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszcyzkowski hinted in June to reporters that TSI could be a response to notions of a multi-speed Europe.

Some European officials are also wary of illiberal-leaning Poland leading the initiative. A researcher at the Swedish Uppsala University, Matthew Kott, sees TSI as fitting into the recent “wave of populist illiberalism” coming out of Central Europe.

Yet, supporters of TSI argue that the initiative will in fact strengthen European unity. President Duda says TSI is “another form of cooperation” in working with European partners. Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski adds that TSI is “not an alternative to European integration,” but complimentary to those efforts.

Another controversial aspect of the project is the role of China. In 2016, China and a handful of Central and Eastern European countries signed the Riga Declaration, which reaffirmed support for TSI. China has taken credit for starting discussion on TSI (referred to as “Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Seaport Cooperation”) as proposed by Premier Li Keqjang during the China-CEEC Summit in 2015.

The Chinese government supports the project as it will “contribute to greater synergy” between Central and Eastern European infrastructure and the proposed Belt and Road Initiative.

Official Chinese cooperation with Central and Eastern Europe is relatively new as founded under the so-called “16+1” agreement. In 2012, the first summit for the agreement was held in Warsaw where the framework for the future relationship between China and the region was laid out. Infrastructure, high technologies, and green technologies were defined as the three areas of focus for future economic cooperation.

The potential of the TSI has hardly been lost on the United States. In his speech at the Warsaw Summit, President Trump told attending nations, “If…you need energy, just give us a call.” His remark came after a shipment of American liquefied natural gas (LNG) was successfully shipped to Poland for the first time ever. Poland has encouraged the import of LNG from the U.S. Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszcyzkowski recently notified reporters that it is not a given “to only have China as the plus one” in cooperation with the region.

Joseph Bebel is Editorial Assistant at European Affairs