Explainer: The Three Seas Initiative

Photo: PAP/Marcin Obara

The Bucharest Summit of the Three Seas Initiative is taking place September 17-18. It will include the first meeting of the initiative’s Business Forum.

What is the Three Seas Initiative?

The Three Seas Initiative is a forum of European Union countries in Central and Eastern Europe located between the Baltic, Adriatic, and the Black Sea. It has been created to promote regional dialogue on a variety of issues affecting the countries of the region.

The Three Seas Initiative is made up of twelve member countries: The three Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) the Visegrad four (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary), Austria, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Slovenia.

The Three Seas Initiative aims at increasing Central European cooperation in the fields of energy security, infrastructural development, communication and transportation. The regions and the whole continent need a more North-South connection to achieve the completion of the internal market that had been so far connecting the continent along an East-West axe.

The initiative has been closely related to two major infrastructure projects in the region. The first North-South highway “Via Carpathia”, connecting Klaipėda in Lithuania with Thessaloniki in Greece. The second is the Liquefied natural gas (LNG) infrastructure project, with ocean terminals in Poland and Croatia and a connecting pipeline.

Past Summits

The initiative held its first summit in Dubrovnik on August 25-26, 2016. The two-day event ended with a declaration of cooperation in economic matters, particularly in the field of energy as well as transport and communications infrastructure.

The initiative's second summit was held July 6-7, 2017 in Warsaw. US President Donald Trump attended and spoke at the summit. The participating countries unanimously agreed to set up a Three Seas Business Forum.

A limited framework for regional cooperation

The regional cooperation is not unconditional and all-encompassing. On the contrary, it is focussed on economic matters, notably on energy, transportation, and digital communication.

At the first Dubrovnik summit, the Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic stated that the cooperation “would benefit not only these twelve EU country members but the whole European Union”.

The Dubrovnik declaration of 2016 is a political framework based on which concrete projects will be designed to help Central and Eastern European countries catch up on their European partners. Still, the cooperation is informal, based only on a “declaration” which means that it is not legally binding for the signatory parties.

Key plan of Polish foreign policy

Since taking power in October 2015, Poland’s ruling party’s (Law and Justice) leading politicians have been tirelessly trying to build close collaborations with their neighbours. By doing so, they want to counterbalance the influence of “old Europe” in Brussels. “Old Europe” refers to the pre-2004 EU-members minus Great Britain.

Since 2015, the “Three Seas Initiative” has been a topic for discussion which gained international visibility with Donald Trump’s visit in Warsaw in July 2017.

Comments on this project of regional cooperation are often misleading because the Three Seas Initiative is usually described in the light of what is perceived as its ideological roots: Intermarium, a project of regional integration of Central Eastern Europe dating from the interwar period.

The confusion with the Intermarium project stems to some extent from Poland’s multi-layered foreign policy since 2015 (a search for various alliances at regional, European and international levels).

Intermarium

The term Intermarium refers to a geopolitical concept developed by the interwar Polish leader Józef Piłsudski. After the division of the Russian empire in the wake of the First World War (1919), Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus formed independent nation-based states. Piłsudski believed that an alliance of those four states in a federal body could safeguard their respective sovereignties.

The concept was extended to Hungary, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Romania in the later 1930’s by the Polish minister for foreign affairs Józef Beck. For both Piłsudski and Beck, the federal entity would be located at the core of the 16th- and 17th-century Europe political entity of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and would be marked by Polish leadership.

The scope of the Intermarium varied depending on the time and place of its formulation, sometimes stretching from the Scandinavian countries up to the Balkans. The concept survived in Polish and Central Eastern European political thinking during the communist time thanks to exiled elites.

At the same time, the keyword ‘Intermarium’ remained censored in Central and Eastern Europe during the postwar era. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the concept did not arise because the geopolitical offer toward which countries In the region were striving was that of EU and NATO membership.

The Intermarium is a historical project of regional integration, while the Three Seas Initiative is a project of regional cooperation. The geopolitical confusion between Trimarium and Intermarium lies in the fact that the same question is raised by both projects: Is Poland looking to become the leader of the region and where lie its own national interests in this proposal?

President Lech Kaczyński’s ideas

Since the new millennium and the change in Russian foreign policy toward the EU, the Intermarium concept regained visibility in Poland’s foreign policy narrative. It was clearly promoted by Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s President from 2005-2010.

This was visible in his attempt to diversify energy suppliers as part of energy security strategy that aimed at cooperating with Azeri producers and later with Kazakh energy elites. After the former President’s death in the Smolensk plane crash in 2010, the Intermarium faded away from Polish presidential foreign policy.

The Civic Platform government headed by Donald Tusk (2007-2015) and the Presidency of Bronisław Komorowski (2007-2015) pursued a different strategy. They were oriented towards building an Alliance with Germany and France (Weimar triangle) in order to build Polish influence in the EU. They did not view Visegrad nor the Balkans as priorities.

In November 2015, the Polish President Andrzej Duda – elected on a Law and Justice ticket – during a visit in Bucharest expressed his will to pursue the plan drafted by President Kaczyński. He wanted to expand NATO bases in Central and Eastern Europe and hoped to see the countries of the region speak with one voice.

Other Examples of regional cooperation with Polish involvement

The Visegrad Group (V4) gathered since 1991 four Central Eastern European countries: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

They chose to cooperate around their EU and NATO integration projects as well as their shared development challenges in transforming their post-communist economies. It is notable that the V4 delivered in the culture and youth exchanges, notably via co-funded projects.

However, it has not been able to integrate the economies of the four countries to make them less unilaterally interdependent from the German market. They have, however, succeeded in presenting a united front of the migration issue, frustrating the Brussels Policy of relocation quotas for refugees.

The Weimar Triangle (France, Germany, and Poland) has managed to deliver on two objectives: to facilitate German-Polish reconciliation and the integration of Poland in transatlantic structures.

But since 2004, it has not been able to deepen EU integration or to be a platform for the three countries to consult each other ahead of meetings of the European Council.

This trilateral cooperation framework is so loose that it has proven unable to political changes in the three countries.

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