The Three Seas Initiative: cohesion, division, and geopolitics by Lucien Enev
The Three Seas Initiative (3SI for short) is an initiative launched in 2016, bringing together 12 EU countries of Central and Eastern Europe stretching – as the name of the initiative indicates – from the Baltic Sea in the North, to the Adriatic and Black seas in the South. The project aims at fostering co-operation between these countries (namely Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria) on a wide array of topics, but most importantly on infrastructure building, energy, and more broadly on economic development. But the 3SI is much more than a merely regional, common agenda-setting enterprise, as it has far-reaching implications for the future of the EU and has transformed Central and South-Eastern Europe into the new scene of contemporary geopolitical rivalries.
Of the 12 countries participating in the 3SI, all but one – Austria – used to be communist dictatorships of the Eastern Bloc, and all have joined the EU during the following waves of enlargement which started in the 1990s. Although these countries have undoubtedly made substantial progress towards European integration and have exhibited high economic growth rates in the past few years (before the covid-19 pandemic), they still suffer from a reputation of being the laggards of Europe, lacking entrepreneurship and failing to fully adapt to EU democratic principles, which has sustained a tacit east-west divide within the EU and seen the emergence of a paternalizing attitude of the richer countries towards them. But has the tide turned?
In blue, the countries participating in the Three seas initiative
The 3SI is indeed a formidable demonstration of enterprising spirit, and of regional cohesiveness. The symbolic counter-argument to the supposed backwardness of the region is perhaps the last 3SI summit, which was held digitally in “e-Estonia” in October, underlining its innovative scope. So, what does that mean for European integration? Some view the recent “revival” of the region as a sign of the vitality of the bloc and of long-awaited catching up with the richer members, foreshadowing a more united Union carrying common aspirations. Others, more pessimistically, view the 3SI – albeit encouraging for its members – as the symptom of a misunderstood and left-out region, which, conscious of its particular problems, undertook to fix it by itself. The 3SI is, after all, one of the largest-scale intra-European co-operation projects yet, and can hence be understood as an even more profound east-west divide. But let us not forget that the EU was represented at the last summit by the European Commission Vice President Margaret Vestager and that the Commission supports the initiative and remains committed to attracting private capital to the 3SI fund, meaning that pessimistic interpretations of the 3SI for the future of the EU are likely too much so.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking remotely at the virtual 3SI summit on October 5th
Perhaps more interesting is that the 3SI is not solely a project of European importance, but has become a central stage of contemporary geopolitics, as the digital “presence” of the US delegation chaired by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – and Donald Trump’s presence at the 2017 summit in Warsaw – during the last summit in October has shown. The United States has announced its will to eventually invest up to $1 billion dollars in the 3SI and has reasserted its commitment to the initiative in October by formalising a $300 million dollars investment in the 3SI infrastructure fund alone.
The 3SI, therefore, appears more as a US-backed project rather than as an EU-backed one, which begs the question: Why is the US so involved in a central-eastern European regional initiative, and what gains is it seeking from it?
The answer probably lies in Donald Trump’s general foreign policy, directed against China, and aimed at protecting what he considers to be strongholds of American influence. Central and Eastern Europe is indeed an attractive pole for Chinese firms, especially infrastructure-wise, and China, therefore, sees an opportunity to expand its own Belt and Road Initiative. Hence, the US involvement in the 3SI is rather explained with what the US has to lose, as Mike Pompeo suggested in a tweet on October 19th: “We have real opportunities to improve the lives of our people, keeping European nations strong, free, and aligned with the United States”. One almost anachronistically detects Cold-War-like rhetoric… Finally, the 3SI is also a sign of the weakening influence of Russia, whose grip on the region is loosening as its countries are increasingly emancipating themselves from their communist (for most) past, structuring their foreign policies around a common future rather than on a shared past linking them with the east.
The 3SI, through both its regional and global importance, is, therefore, a sign of vitality for a region whose attractiveness and ability to be competitive were often put into question. Yes, just like during the Cold War, it is crystalizing geopolitical tensions. But this time is different, as the initiative is its own, and it, therefore, holds bargaining power like never before. It could even be that – to a greater extent than people think – central-eastern Europe carries a big weight in the evolution of European and world politics…