* The three-seas-initiative: European regionalism of supranational nature
Three Seas Initiative: a Polish geopolitical move recalling the interwar claims to lead Central and Eastern Europe?
According to official documents, 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 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. However, the Polish conciliating narrative on the project, having in background opened anti-German and anti-EU rhetoric, failed to convince Czech and Slovak policymakers. The tone of Polish national politics explains why international commentators accuse the Three Seas Initiative to be a step toward more Central Eastern European leadership claims.
The Warsaw summit of July 2017 was the second meeting comprising the Heads of States of the Three Seas Initiative. It was highly mediatized because it took place in the background of the visit of the Donald Trump in Poland.
The president of the USA was invited to join the leaders, which has been perceived by many western commentators as an expression of privileged relation between Warsaw and Washington. All this had in background the Brexit-negotiations and the revival of the Franco-German tandem planning further steps of European integration.
Many speculations have been formulated on the Polish intensions behind this framework for regional cooperation. The lack of consistency of observers has played a role in the conceptual chaos we mentioned above. However, the cooperation must also be assessed in the light of its concrete implementation. Is the Three Seas Initiative delivering anything concrete?
The meaning of the Three Seas Initiative for the region: possibilities and limits
Online, it is easier to find editorialist papers arguing on the revival of the historical Polish Intermarium geopolitical agenda. It is more difficult, however, to identify the deliverables of the initiative.
However, one must acknowledge that the cooperation is still young and that it takes time to deliver, even more so when the main purpose of a project is to trigger the development of common infrastructures. Indeed, infrastructures (in communication, transport or energy) are so called “capital intensive” goods. It requires a long decision-making process and implementation periods before a road, a bridge, or a high-voltage line or a pipeline is build. Don’t expect them to bloom within couples of years. What can Three Seas Initiative means for its members, and what difficulties it will surely encounter?
The Foundation Institute for Eastern Studies, known for organizing the yearly Economic Forum in Krynica, organized a round of conferences in 2017 entitled “Adriatic – Baltic – Black Sea. Visions of Cooperation”. In Tallin, Robert Filipczak, Polish Ambassador to Estonia, said the Trimarium is meant to “boost the economy and support the EU”. Przemysław Żurawski Vel Grajewski, the then Adviser to the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, added that the main aim is to build some tangible infrastructures. For example, Estonians political interests lie in digitisation and cyber security, but at the same time, they are working very hard now on connecting the Baltic states to the rest of Europe, notably to move the energy security of three states away from Russia and towards the EU. When it comes to security, official assure that the cooperation in the framework of this initiative is solely about energy security and digital security, not about military security.
So what is delivered? One key word comes out of the talks between experts and stake-holders: Via Carpathia. The Latin expression refers to a flagship infrastructure project intended to link the Central and Eastern European countries on the North South axes.
Via Carpathia is meant to become a transnational highway linking Klaipėda in Lithuania with Thessaloniki in Greece (see map below). The project is in the pipes since the 2006 Declaration of Łańcuc. Since then, the project is still in a conceptual phase, while the number of participating states has steadily increased. Trimarium is hence logically the ideal framework to welcome its realization that is planned until 2050.
Source: Polish Ministry of Infrastructure and Construction
Interconnection is a real need for the region. This has been one structural weakness of the regions that has been addressed for years by the European regional funds (see for examples the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region and the EU Strategy for the Danube Region).
However, the use made of these funds failed to deliver the expected outcomes. Structural weaknesses are very visible in the energy security of the region. Almost all participating countries are heavily dependent on Russian natural gas and oil. Still, solidarity of supply between the countries is not possible because their national networks are not interconnected.
Therefore, the most important challenge of the Three Sea Initiative should be to create a regional energy network allowing to diversity energy suppliers to the region (following the logic of the synchronisation of the three Baltic States’ electricity grid with the continental European network).
Learning from previous failed schemes of intra-European cooperation
There have been many regional groups, oriented around more or less narrow interests within the EU and with a more or less integrated structure of cooperation, an old example being the Benelux, originally an economic union in the post-war time. Other keywords in the regions are the groupings of GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova), the BSEC (Organisation of Black Sea Economic Cooperation) and the Visegrad Group.
The Visegrad group (V4) gathered since 1991 four Central Eastern European countries: Poland, Czechia, 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 failed to integrate the economies of the four countries to make them less unilaterally interdependent form the Germany market. Moreover, no political unity exists among the countries in Brussels. The V4 countries align unregularly and incompletely on each single dossier. For example, none of the country supported Poland in voting out Donald Tusk as president of the European Council in March 2017. Not even Viktor Orbán, in opposition to what he had announced.
The Weimar Triangle (France, Germany, and Poland) is also often tagged as a failed cooperation scheme. It managed to deliver its first objectives: facilitate German-Polish reconciliation and the integration of Poland in the transatlantic structures. But since 2004, it failed masterfully to be a new motor for the deepening of EU integration or even to be a platform for the three countries to consult each other’s in a constructive way to facilitated negotiations in the European Council.
This trilateral cooperation framework is so loose that it has proven unable to survive the burst of national politics of its members. In light with the mitigated results of the Visegrad group and the Weimar Triangle, what hopes do we have for the Trimarium, an opened cooperation framework between twelve countries that shall not compete with the EU’s doing?
The failure of previous intra-European cooperation frameworks to deliver long term results stems, in my view, from the lack of concretely defined quantifiable deliverables. Without undermining the actors’ contributions to the long term understanding of their respective societies, cooperation such as the Weimar Triangle and the Visegrad groups are nowadays tagged as inefficient because the expectations linked to those regional groups were disproportionate to the tools they were provided with.
At least, the Three Seas Initiative is clearly defined as a tool to foster the Nord-South interconnection of Central Eastern Europe. It has a sectorial limitation. To be efficient, it requires tangible tools such as a budget and dedicated manpower within ministries to ensure a coordination of the cooperation. We shall see what the next meeting of Trimarium in Romania will deliver. Eventually, the effort Polish leaders will invest in making this initiative work on the long term will tell us more about the geopolitical rational behind it.
This leads us to the following consideration: Even at a supranational level, are those regional cooperation schemes not also the expression of a fight for more independence from a centralized authority? In the answer to this question lies the red line between complementarity and competition with Brussels. Increased independence does not erase the interdependence of living on a shared territory. Hence, intra-European cooperation mechanisms need to be complementary to the Union (in complete line with the logic of subsidiarity) in order to be meaningful at all. To be viable, initiatives such as the Three Seas Initiative should represent a complementary intermediate level between Brussels and the national level.
* The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: nouvelle-europe.eu
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