"There are 120 million EU citizens in the Three Seas region and the Three Seas is now a huge part of Europe's economic growth, and the fastest-growing part of Europe", with these words Poland's President Andrzej Duda praised the initiative at the last meeting of its member states in Sofia on July 8-9, 2021. The Three Seas Initiative, which was launched in August 2016, actually owes its creation to the efforts of Polish President Duda and former Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. With the initiative, which now counts 12 member states - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Austria, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria - the two presidents intended to strengthen cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe, and promote the development of the countries between the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea.
The U.S. think tank Atlantic Council drew the attention of the two presidents to the untapped economic potential of the countries that not long ago were isolated from Western Europe on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Compared to Western Europe, some of these countries still lag behind economically today and often suffer from outdated infrastructure. To overcome this economic disparity within Europe, the Three Seas Initiative aims to strengthen cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe, and promote the necessary investments in the energy, transport and digital infrastructures. Here, the focus is primarily on expanding the north-south infrastructure, which is years behind the European east-west axis. This in turn will attract more investors and thus promote the economic development and competitiveness of the region.
Broadly speaking, the Three Seas Initiative pursues the following six goals: economic growth, investment growth, energy security, geopolitical interests, digital advancement and climate protection. To realize these goals, an Investment Fund was opened as part of the Three Seas Initiative. This fund helps finance the joint macro-regional projects of the initiative. 51% of the projects supported by the initiative can be attributed to the transport sector. 32% of the projects belong to the energy sector, and only 17% of the Three Seas projects target the digital sector.
While the intentions and goals of the Three Seas Initiative are commendable, some member states question whether the initiative is actually capable of meeting its ambitious goals. Moreover, some European states repeatedly express concerns about whether the forum is in line with the European Union or is rather driving a wedge between the Western and Eastern member states of the EU. Officially, the initiative is intended to exist complementary, not in competition, to the EU. It is not meant to be an inter-state organization with the intention of undermining the EU, but an informal forum for states that wish to improve bilateral and multilateral sub-regional relations at the European level. However, the fact that the initiative was initiated by Poland's EU-skeptical President Duda has stirred up skepticism and mistrust among EU countries – at the beginning, the Czech Republic was particularly suspicious of the Three Seas Initiative's aspirations.
In fact, the perspective of individual member states on the initiative is by no means the same. Those states differ not only in their expectations and interests, but also in the extent of their support and their understanding of what role major powers such as Russia, China, the United States and Germany should play in this initiative. U.S. Secretary of State Michael Popeo's announcement at the 2020 Munich Security Conference that his country will invest $1 billion in the development of the countries of the initiative highlighted the interest that the United States has in strengthening relations with Central and Eastern Europe. This promise, in turn, reinforced Hungary's interest in the Three Seas Initiative. However, by no means is U.S. support altruistic; rather, geostrategic considerations play a role, as the United States seeks to protect its hegemonic standing in the world.
China and Russia are also pursuing the goal of expanding their influence in this part of Europe, though. Primarily for this reason, the twelve states have found themselves in the economic and political initiative. The countries in this region, which are largely dependent on Russian energy, long for independence from the state, which in the past has often exploited this dependency as blackmail to pursue its own national interests. Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Romania, in particular, recognize the need to strengthen their strategic partnership with the West and especially the United States.
A comparison of the member states of the Three Seas Initiative in terms of their expectations and opinions about the initiative, and their relations with Germany, the U.S., China, and Russia will provide clarity on the aspirations and the future of the initiative. The following articles present an overview of each member state's perspective on the initiative. Interviews with twelve respective country-specific experts offer additional insight into these relations.
About the author:
Valerie Kornis completed an internship at the Central Europe and Baltic States Project Office. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in International Relations and Organisations from Leiden University in The Netherlands and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at Sciences Po in Paris.