NIAS Europe Studies

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NIAS Europe Studies
Three Seas Initiative: Uplifting Eastern and Central Europe

  Rishika Yadav

During 06 and 07 September, 12 EU member states situated between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic Sea and investors met in the Three Seas Initiative Business Forum held in Romania to address economic and geopolitical challenges. Marcel Ciolacu, Romania’s Prime Minister, along with several Presidents and John Kerry, US Presidential Envoy for Climate, emphasized the importance of regional infrastructure investments, defence, digital sectors, and support for Ukraine. Klaus Werner Iohannis, Romania’s President, said: “The new 3SI Innovation Fund and a renewed version of the Investment Fund can satisfy the region’s appetite for economic development.”

Background and membership
In the 1930s, Poland attempted to form an alliance among countries in the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas. It was formed to protect against the Soviet Union and Germany. The alliance was initially viewed as a potential dominance by Warsaw, akin to the historic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. France opposed it stating the initiative lacked “leadership.” Whereas Lithuania and Czechoslovakia viewed it as a threat to sovereignty. 

In 2015, Andrzej Duda, former Poland’s President and Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, former Croatia’s President, established the Three Seas Initiative, initially conceived as an infrastructure project to bolster cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe. Following this the first summit was convened in Dubrovnik, Croatia, in 2016. The initiative comprised three groups of countries. First, the “North group” includes Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which rely on foreign investment for security. Second, the “Visegrad Four” with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, who differ in their objectives. Third, Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia, with Croatia aiming to strengthen ties with the US and counter China’s influence. In June 2022, Ukraine attained partner-participant status. In the 2023 summit, Greece officially became the 13th member and Moldova became a partner-participant. Later the Aegean Sea was introduced. 

What has it achieved so far? 
The Dubrovnik Declaration of 2016 established the objectives of the initiative, followed by the establishment of the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund in 2019. It features substantial support from the US. The initiative has identified a total of 91 interconnection projects. Notable among these projects are the Via Carpathia, a vital north-south highway spanning from Lithuania to Greece, liquefied natural gas (LNG) infrastructure, the Baltic-Adriatic Corridor, Via Baltica Road, Rail Baltica, and the Amber Rail Freight Corridor.
The IMF has endorsed investments in transportation and digital infrastructure to stimulate economic stability and growth. The initiative has shown progress in advancing energy security and promoting climate-friendly energy transitions. It emphasizes the importance of digital transformation and cybersecurity, promoting responsible development and regulations. Lastly, following Russia's invasion, Poland, Slovakia, and Czechia provided substantial military equipment along with economic assistance.

What does the initiative aim at?
Croatia and Poland do not view it primarily as a geopolitical tool; rather to modernize and advance the infrastructure of member states. The initiative’s formation was the growing concern of reliance on Russia’s energy supplies. It aims to reduce the reliance on Russia’s gas imports by capitalizing on liquified natural gas terminals in Poland, Lithuania, and a potential terminal in Croatia. However, recent escalations in the Black Sea region by Russia, have heightened security concerns among countries. The focus advanced to security issues rather than just economic issues. This rooted back to Soviet Union, which delayed their transition to market-based economies and left a legacy of underdeveloped energy and transport infrastructure.

Through cooperative projects and investments, the initiative intends to create “north-south” energy and infrastructure corridor, rectifying the dominance of east-west connections. As Zbigniew Brzezinksi, former National Security Advisor of the US and David Koranyi, Hungary’s Senior Fellow for Energy Diplomacy, wrote, “For more than half a century after the end of World War II, infrastructure interconnections on the continent focused on the development of the East-West axis. During the Cold War, pipelines that delivered Soviet oil and gas to Central and Eastern Europe also served as tools of submission and control.” 

The initiative addresses economic disparities and infrastructure deficits. It fosters collaboration in areas such as power engineering, logistics, transport, and IT. Additionally, it supports connecting regional energy networks to pipelines like the Trans Adriatic Pipeline and tapping into Black Sea gas reserves. This initiative also seeks to ensure that it complements rather than competes with the EU. Speaking at the 2018 Bucharest Summit, Kitarović said that the initiative would “make Central Europe the backbone of European resilience.”

What are the challenges? 
First, concerns on priority on gas over renewable energy. The initiative’s gas promotion contradicts EU’s climate goals, and also clashes with the International Energy Agency’s recommendations. The initiative can shift its focus towards supporting renewable energy infrastructure, especially given the EU's ‘Fit for 55’ package.

Second, skepticism on Hungary’s role. Hungary has adopted a more cautious stance in supporting Ukraine, citing its energy dependence on Russia. This is leading to fractions and non-compliance within the member states.

Third, an Central and Eastern European states have an opportunity to establish a new European economic security framework as Russian-German influence wanes. However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seeks influence through initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative and economic ties. 

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