Three Seas Initiative: history, challenges and realities

A recent initiative was created in 2016, with an ambition to connect the Three Seas – Baltic, Black and Adriatic. The 12 European countries involved in this initiative share an experience of Communist rule in the 20th century, with all the issues that entails. Yet, this initiative is not considered by its founders, Croatia and Poland, as a geopolitical vehicle, but more so a way to innovate and develop the member state infrastructure, and thus catch up with “old Europe”. Is this initiative truly new? Are all members so enthusiastic? And what is its real role in Central Europe?

The Initiative was founded by Poland and Croatia in 2016 to unite the smaller eastern economies. Common features of these states are the reality of being very recent members of both the EU and NATO, while also sharing the past of being on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. The list of original members includes Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, Romania, Croatia, and Bulgaria. [1] Nevertheless, this Initiative is not wholly original, as its roots go back to the 1st World War and the disintegration of empires that followed.

The “Intermarium” of Old

The term “Intermarium” comes from Latin, meaning “Between seas”. Before the First World War (WW1), this term was describing the eastern parts of the Austro-Hungarian and German empires, as well as the western parts of the Russian empire. After WW1, all three mentioned states ceased to exist and gave birth to a dozen new mid-size states between the new German Weimar Republic and the Soviet Union. These new nations were considered by many to be a “cordon sanitaire” with the intention of separating these two nations, which made no secret about wanting their formal territories back. [2]

The Key proponent of this “cordon sanitaire” was the newly formed Polish state which gained its independence after over 120 years of occupation by Germany and Russia. Polish elites called this geopolitical Initiative “Międzymorze” and envisaged an alliance of nations from the Baltic seas to the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea, which would form a third power block which could counter threats from resurgent Soviet and German imperialisms. [3]

Polish proposed “Intermarium” including the soviet republics of Ruthenia and Ukraine. Source: Wikimedia

This “alliance” was a brainchild of Józef Piłsudski, a polish interwar leader, who planned a creation of a confederation led by Poland which would cooperate on the promotion of independence of central Europe and provide a counterbalance to resurgent Soviet Russia and Germany. This project faced many adversities, be that the geographical scale, the number of different foreign policy goals, or distrust of Polish geopolitical ambitions. Notable setbacks came in the form of French dislike of any Initiative without their “leadership”. Lithuania saw the plan as a threat to its national independence, and Czechoslovakia did not want to be in an alliance with Poland. [4]  As the Initiative failed, Polish fear became a reality. In 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland, splitting the country in two followed by brutal occupation which resulted in the deaths of millions. [5]

Although unsuccessful, the project of “Intermarium” represented an important intellectual project of the Polish academic and political elite, arguing for voluntary collaboration of Central-Eastern European countries arising from common interests and solidarity. It was arguing for a world of complex overlapping spheres of influence in geopolitical and geoeconomics contexts, which would still allow for states to work together on specific matters while being able to disagree on other ones. [6]

An Attempt to Move On

As the Polish nation attempts to bring back this formally unsuccessful initiative, it aims to prevent the pitfall of the past and promotes a principle of helping nations which faced Soviet rule, to modernize their infrastructure, energy grids, and economy in general. The big advantage is that all these countries are already members of the same economic and security institutions, like NATO and the EU.

If the Initiative seeks to promote economic objectives, it is necessary to look at its economic potential. Available statistics show that the EU GDP amounts to $17 Trillion. [7] Data published in 2019 show the block’s total GDP amounting to $2.1 trillion, with average annual GDP growth of 3.3%. Its population amounts to 111 million, making up 30% of the entire EU. The available forecasts show that the Eastern European members of the bloc are one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe with forecasted GDP growth of 35% by 2030.

Yet, it has a bulging deficit in infrastructure investment amounting to over $500 billion. [8] Germany, the economic engine of the EU, contributes $4 Trillion in GDP to the EU. [9] This leads some politicians from the region to speak of the need for a stronger voice in the EU. They claim that their economic growth and potential should give them a bigger say and be a deal maker within the EU and not just a follower. To this end, the Croatian and Polish governments founded the Initiative in 2016 to be used as a forum to gather the strength of the Eastern European countries and to give them a stronger voice in the EU. [10]

In practical terms, the Three Seas Initiative was also able to present a list of priority “Interconnection” projects which have grown from 48 in 2018 to 91 in 2022 with an estimated value of $168 Billion. [11] Some of these “priority” projects include energy infrastructure, notably liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, like those built in Poland and Lithuania, as well as a future terminal built in Croatia to allow many eastern European countries to transition away from Russian gas imports. [12]

Disunified membership

The Initiative is composed of 12 nations, spanning the whole of continental Europe. There is a need to differentiate between them and find out what their goals are within the Initiative. For this, we shall put these nations in three separate groups.

The first group of nations can be named the “North group” and consists of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These countries‘ trait is their dependence on the inflow of foreign direct investment to maintain economic growth. The size of their economy makes them susceptible to external shocks, namely its eastern neighbour Russia, which uses its Russian minority to affect Baltic national policy. These nations rely on their EU and NATO membership as a guarantee of their national independence and survival. Especially after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which was argued by Russia to be in defence of ethnic Russians. [14]

The second group consists of the “Visegrad Four” countries, which include the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland which are both in NATO and the EU. These states have become one of the biggest supporters of Ukraine after the Russian invasion in February 2022, as Poland, Slovakia and Czechia support Ukraine with heavy military equipment e.g. artillery, tanks and economic support. On the other hand, Hungary is more restrained with its support to Ukraine, quoting its reliance on Russia for energy as the main reason. [15] Yet “Three seas scepticism” is also present. Namely, Czechia which is significantly economically dependent on Germany and EU subsidies does not wish to challenge the status quo. Slovakia has taken a similar position as it is a member of the eurozone, and EU funds are the driving force behind its development. [16]

The third group comprises Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia, who are all NATO members yet have become members recently. These states have key locations between Europe and Asia, which makes them attractive transit zones. Croatia is one of the founding members of the Initiative with a goal of strengthening its relations with the USA while counteracting Chinese influence in the Balkans. Bulgari’s approach was also focused on bringing new pathways to rid itself of its dependence on Russia, although this has proven unsuccessful due to a variety of domestic events which have seen Bulgari remain reliant on Russia for the repair of military equipment and energy. [17] Romania views the Initiative as strengthening intra-European relations and countering Russia. Yet a critical issue arises between Romania and Hungary due to a large Hungarian minority in Romania’s western regions. [18] The Romanian government may perhaps be worried about the separatism of this minority.

However, as noted by both the Polish and Estonian presidents, the Initiative plans on expanding to bring in new members such as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, all with significant economic potential. Projects like the Odesa-Gdansk highway or Rail-2-Sea network from the Black Sea ports in Romania to the Baltic Sea. . To this end, Ukraine has accepted its membership during the 2022 Riga Summit. [18] This partnership is said to be a signal to other non-EU countries that this Initiative can help EU aspiring countries to engage more with the TSI block. [19]  Ukraine’s president Zelensky even called the Three seas Initiative a “lifeline to the free world”. [20]

The future look of the Three Seas Initiative once Ukraine receives its full membership. Source: Wikimedia

The current membership of Ukraine shows that there may be other, “less economic” reasons, behind the Initiative. This stems from the fact that the ongoing open war from 2022 will significantly diminish Ukraine’s economic productivity and rebuilding Ukraine’s economy and industry will take time and a lot of money. Thus, it is the author’s opinion that “geopolitical” goals, which put Ukraine as a key ally in a struggle against Russian imperialism, have taken precedents.

Three Seas in The Age of Global Competition

Seeing that the current state of international security has shifted since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, it could be argued that the emphasis of the Three Seas Initiative will have to change. Although its manifesto says its goals are simply economic, some researchers argue that this initiative has had a geopolitical context since its inception. In particular, its founder, Poland, hoped to use the Initiative to promote regional security. This is aptly shown in a statement from the 2017 Polish Diplomatic Review of the Polish Institute of International Affairs: “while officially the Three Seas Initiative’s objective was economic, most participants viewed it as a strategic step towards safety against the threats from the East”. [21]  Warsaw wanted to make military cooperation a core part of the Three Seas Initiative. However, this move was blocked by its fellow member states at the time. [22]

As the geopolitical situation worsened, the role of TSI also shifted, mostly because of its open support by both the Trump and Biden administrations. The reasons behind its support are twofold. First, it offers European countries an alternative engagement model to the Chinese „Belt and Road” Initiative in Central Europe and more notably 17+1 cooperative development framework. These Initiatives led by China are considered a threat by Washington as they serve China to extend its influence in Europe. [23] The second value of the Three Seas was to address the energy security and dependence on Russia before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. From Washington’s perspective, this Initiative helps solidify former Eastern countries in the democratic West, while also helping the “Russo-sceptic” voices within those countries to push the EU to take a stronger anti-Russian stance. [24]

This point may prove controversial but is reinforced by an argument made by Leszek Sykulski,  an assistant professor at the department of national security at Josef Goluchowski University and a formal international security analyst in the office of the President of Poland. He states that the Initiative serves to generate pressure on Germany and the EU, and it limits Chinese interests in the region. According to him, Poland is to be a “geopolitical” pillar in this part of the world. [25] This logic puts the Three Seas Initiative energy project in direct competition with the Russo-German Nord Stream 2 plans. Once the Polish LNG terminals and pipelines are completed, they could undermine the economic utility of the Nord Stream pipeline. It is fair to say that the Nord Stream 2 project is currently “dead” due to sabotage, and Germany is doing its best to lose its reliance on Russian energy supplies. Yet on a strictly economic basis, any TSI project could be a direct competition with German infrastructure or shipping projects. This could be considered one of the reasons why Berlin looked at the Initiative as an attempt to establish a political block which would undermine the strong German position as the main hub for European energy. [21]

This brings us to another interesting angle, the wider potential of the Polish-led bloc could be to undermine western or more so Franco-German hegemony in European affairs. We do not have to go far, the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in his 2022 statement called France and Germany a de facto oligarchy running the EU, ignoring the voices of countries like Poland or those of the Baltics of the Russian threat.  [26] Additionally, Franco-German lack of leadership in the Ukrainian conflict has not won them any favours from many Eastern European countries. One could say the invasion of Ukraine has transformed Poland’s international image, from a troublemaker with rule of law issues, into an admired supporter of Ukraine.

In the second decade of the 21st century, where a sword appears to be mightier than a pen, there sure will be those who say economic power is not enough. Although not able to match German economic power, the Three Seas Initiative can have a larger role to play in the post-Russo-Ukraine War Europe, as many smaller European states rush to cut their reliance on Russian gas, while increasing defence budgets which have been underfunded for the better part of the two decades. Polish leadership in Warsaw may try to seize their chance to cement Poland’s position as a geopolitical guardian and leader of Eastern Europe, finally realizing the dream of its 1920s leader Józef Piłsudski, a dream of Polish “great power”.

But as it happens, it is important to note that such aspirations are easier to dream up than to put into practice.  In the end, it is a brainchild of Polish geopolitical thinkers [27], who understandably pursue policies to help the Polish state to extend its influence. This may worsen its relations with already mentioned France and Germany who will view Polish aspirations as a clear threat to their “place in the Sun”.  Notably, one can see a profound shift in France, Italy, and Germany, on their attitudes towards Russia, and Poland needs to ensure it can remain constructive and bring more sceptical members into a more hawkish policy against Russia. The future Ukrainian EU membership can also be an opportune moment for Warsaw to take leadership. But for this, it needs to retain the support of influential players in the EU, which sadly countries like the Baltics or Czechia can never be. At its core, the Polish policy is to expand its position and to limit the influence of its biggest rival, Russia, and consequently anyone who would dare ally with it.

Article reviewed by: Adam Sitko, Jan Slánský


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