ZOiS Spotlight 28/2019

What Poland sees in the Three Seas Initiative

by George Soroka 17/07/2019
Polish president Andrzej Duda at a summit of the Three Seas Initiative. imago images / newspix

Since being jointly established by Croatia and Poland in 2015, the Three Seas Initiative (TSI) has become something of a palimpsest onto which various states and actors have inscribed their political anxieties and ambitions for the region between Germany and Russia. It does not help that the TSI, which connects the states between the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black Seas, enigmatically characterises itself as ‘a flexible political platform’. Its mandate includes everything from bolstering relations between its members to upholding their collective commitment to European integration to reviving and strengthening the transatlantic partnership.

Consequently, the TSI is today viewed in diverse ways. Some see it primarily as a way of breaking Eastern and Central Europe’s energy dependence on Russia and thwarting Russian-German cooperation in the sector, particularly with regard to the planned Nord Stream 2 pipeline. For others, it is an attempt to circumvent Western European scepticism of the US and recommit the countries of Eastern and Central Europe to working with Washington.

Still others view the TSI as a vehicle for asserting Polish hegemony over the region and containing Russia. These observers note the initiative’s resemblance to the abortive federation stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea known as the Intermarium that was championed by Poland’s interwar leader, Józef Piłsudski. Today’s Polish politicians must therefore tread a careful line if the Three Seas Initiative is to become a regional success.

The goals of the Three Seas Initiative

The TSI is composed of Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Significantly, its members all belong to the EU, and all except Austria are post-communist states that are part of NATO. Considered together, they are relative economic laggards, constituting  28 per cent of the EU’s territory and 22 per cent of its population but only 10 per cent of its GDP.

The first Three Seas summit was held in August 2016 in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Subsequent meetings have taken place annually in the capitals of Poland, Romania, and Slovenia. High-ranking officials from the EU, the US, and even China have been routine visitors to these events, indicating the perceived geopolitical potential of this body. US president Donald Trump showed up to the July 2017 summit in Warsaw, pledging that the United States ‘will be your strongest ally and steadfast partner in this truly historic initiative’. Similarly, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, German foreign minister Heiko Maas, and US secretary of energy Rick Perry attended the June 2019 Ljubljana summit.

As an organisation geared towards economic matters, the TSI focuses on areas including energy and energy security, infrastructure development and transport, and digital interconnectivity and communications. Its geographic focus is spelled out in the 2016 Dubrovnik Statement, which stresses ‘the importance of connecting Central and Eastern European economies and infrastructure from North to South, in order to complete the single European market’.

Although the TSI has not yet realised any grand projects, two proposals are particularly significant. The first is the Via Carpathia, a road that would connect the Lithuanian port of Klaipėda to Thessaloniki in Greece. The second consists of building a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on the Croatian island of Krk to complement a recently completed facility in Świnoujście, Poland, and constructing a pipeline to supply the region. 

As for the motivations behind the TSI, it is notable that the two politicians most directly associated with its founding, Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović and Polish president Andrzej Duda, both hail from conservative-nationalist parties allergic to notions of European federalism. It is also significant that the TSI emerged on the heels of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. More generally, this project reflects a desire to overcome regional economic deficits that date from the communist era.

Unsurprisingly, worries abound that the TSI will hamper European unification efforts, particularly given the wave of illiberalism currently sweeping Eastern and Central Europe. There are also fears that the initiative will allow the US and, increasingly, China to interfere in European affairs.

Poland between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas

How does the TSI fit into Poland’s foreign policy objectives, and to what extent do these align with those of its other members? One of the TSI’s main architects, Krzysztof Szczerski—who is Poland’s secretary of state and chief of the president’s cabinet—has emphasised that the initiative does not seek to supplant the EU but rather to complement it. He stressed that it is not primarily a political project, but one geared towards promoting business and regional investment. Nonetheless, Polish priorities tend to focus close to home, as illustrated by Warsaw’s efforts to tie the Baltics into Poland’s electrical grid so that their power supply will no longer depend on Russia. 

Polish politicians do not see the TSI as a replica of Piłsudski’s Intermarium, for two reasons. First, the present-day project does not include Belarus, Finland, or Ukraine, unlike the earlier proposed union. Second, the TSI is fundamentally dependent on NATO for security assurances, whereas the Intermarium was explicitly conceived of as a strategic counterweight to Russia and Germany. Still, many observers—including officials from other TSI states—remain sceptical about Poland’s motives, both for historical reasons and because energy resources can be readily securitised. Countries such as Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria likewise do not share Poland’s abiding distrust of Moscow, which limits the TSI’s latitude in dealing with Russia.   

As a result, Poland is walking a tightrope when it comes to regional cooperation. However, although the TSI remains politically fragile, it is likely to prove sustainable if Poland can stay focused on economic issues and avoid wading too deeply into geopolitics. But this may prove a tall order for Warsaw’s governing Law and Justice Party, which has presided over a considerable worsening of relations with both Berlin and Moscow. Whether the Three Seas Initiative will become an effective force therefore remains to be seen.

George Soroka is Lecturer on Government and Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies at Harvard University.