The Three Seas Initiative (TSI) was launched in 2015 as a project bringing together twelve Central and Eastern European countries in order to close the gap between West and Eastern Europe through cooperation in energy, infrastructure and digitalisation. While these projects formally contribute to one of the EU’s most important goals, namely the cohesion between its Member States, others consider the TSI as a potential source for inner-European fragmentation. This is mostly due to the U.S.’s strong endorsement of the initiative, which repeatedly underlined the Russian influence in the region as a threat to the TSI members’ security. This paper will review the nature of the initiative by assessing its goals against the reasons for cleavages between East and West. In addition, the reaction of both the EU and the U.S. will be analysed, i.e. applying the Securitization theory framework before attempting an outlook on the TSI’s future development and challenges.
The Three Seas Initiative (TSI) is a recently established project bringing together twelve Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, most of which joined the EU in or after 2004. After having been launched following an initiative of the Polish and Croatian presidents in 2015, the project has recently gained increased attention, exemplified by U.S. president Donald Trump’s attendance at the initiative’s 2017 summit in Warsaw. The TSI describes itself as “a flexible political platform” whose ultimate goal is to increase convergence between EU Member States by enhancing economic growth in CEE countries through cooperation in the fields of infrastructure, energy and digitalisation. This shall be achieved by financing inter alia the construction of highways and railways as well as through the installation of gas and electricity interconnectors across the participating countries. The funding for these projects is to be generated via the TSI Investment Fund, seeking to bring together private and public investors from the TSI members as well as the EU and the United States. While some analysts portray the TSI as a potential remedy to the cleavages between Eastern and Western Europe, others consider the cooperation as a geopolitical instrument through which especially the United States seek to exert influence in the region to decrease the CEE countries’ dependence on Russia.
This paper will assess the nature of the TSI, analysing whether the project should be considered beneficial for the EU-27 as a whole or rather is to be seen as a potential source of fragmentation. For this purpose, it will be scrutinised to what extent the TSI’s goals respond to challenges particular to CEE countries and what the reactions of third countries reveal about their strategic motives in engaging with the TSI. The hypothesis that will be followed is that the initiative’s official intention with a focus on economic growth could have a favourable effect on the European integration process. Nevertheless, certain remarks, notably by the U.S. administration, suggest the potential for a securitisation and politicisation of the project. This finding combined with the heterogeneity of the TSI’s member countries could pose significant challenges to the success of the initiative and, above all, to intra-European unity.
The thematic input for the paper will be based on several sources. The official perspective of the TSI shall be considered, e.g. by looking at TSI summit statements and the initiative’s website. To get a clearer understanding of the different TSI countries’ intentions, selected declarations of some of the participating countries will be analysed. Furthermore, as the research question is whether the TSI could contribute to bridging the divide between Western and Eastern Europe, the official EU communications line in this matter will be assessed. Lastly, statements by U.S. representatives will also be considered in order to work out the country’s interest in the cooperation with the region. The latter shall be performed by applying the Securitization theory, a theoretical framework originating from the academic sphere of International Relations studies.
This paper will start with an introduction to the topic by providing a brief overview on the creation of the TSI and its main goals. These objectives will be assessed against some of the most prevalent divergences between Western Europe and CEE countries. The following section will be devoted to the engagement and reaction of some of the most important actors, notably the EU and the United States, allowing for a better evaluation of the TSI’s nature. The paper then attempts a short prospect – regarding possible future fields and actors for cooperation – before concluding by presenting challenges to the TSI.
3. Background: examples of past CEE cooperation and the creation of the TSI
In the course of their long history, the countries of CEE have often been torn by the conflictual relationship between the East and the West. To encounter their geopolitically sensitive location and maintain their independence, the countries of the region have initiated several projects to resist external pressure. Examples of these intentions are the Rzeczpospolita which existed until the late 18th century and the Intermarium (“Międzymorze”) project introduced by Chief of State Piłsudski, both of which were advanced particularly by Poland (Ištok, Kozárová, & Polačková, 2018).
While the Intermarium was primarily aiming at creating a federation of countries to promote the independence of Central Europe and needs to be seen in the interwar context with a focus on security issues, the TSI as topic of this paper focuses on the development of infrastructures to find “synergies through cooperation” (Żurawski vel Grajewski & Baeva Motusic, 2017). This is also a result of the changed political framework, including the membership of all TSI countries in NATO (except Austria) as well as in the EU and the altered global balance of power.
As the name “Three Seas Initiative” suggests, the platform seeks to interconnect twelve EU Member States in Central and Eastern European countries from the Baltic Sea to the Black and the Adriatic Sea (Figure 1). All participating countries share some general characteristics, as many of them used to belonged to the former Soviet Union and most member countries were part of NATO before joining the EU (Kurecic, 2018, p. 99). Together, the TSI countries make up for 28 percent of the EU’s territory as well as 22 percent of its population, but only account for approx. 10 percent of its GDP (European Commission, 2018).
The lower economic performance in CEE countries was the subject of numerous analyses and led to increased calls for change. In 2014, the U.S. think tank American Council issued a study urging an “accelerated construction of a North-South Corridor of energy, transportation and communication links stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic and Black Seas” (Atlantic Council & CEEP, 2014). Croatian president Grabar-Kitarović and Polish president Duda took up this proposal on the margins of a UN General Assembly meeting in 2015, before the first official summit in August 2016 laid the foundation stone for a subsequent institutionalisation of the project. With the incremental duration of the TSI’s existence, it garnered the public’s interest. This was particularly the case in the aftermath of the 2017 Warsaw Summit, not least due to the presence of U.S. president Trump, who endorsed the initiative (cf. quote in Figure 2).
4. Goals of the TSI
According to its self-conception, the TSI seeks to facilitate “real convergence among EU Member States”, which shall latterly lead to increased EU unity, cohesion and integration. These goals shall be attained by improving cross-border connectivity particularly in the fields of infrastructure, energy and digitalisation, which where concretised into 48 projects at the 2018 Bucharest Summit (Three Seas Initiative, 2018).
Out of these 48 selected projects, 23 are related to transports, showing the importance of infrastructure to the TSI (Jacobson, 2019). The most important projects in this sector are the construction of highways and trainways, filling the existing infrastructural gap in the region. One of the best-known examples is the Via Carpathia, a highway network that is supposed to link Thessaloniki to Klaipėda in Lithuania and whose opening date is scheduled for 2025. Similarly, the railway systems in CEE countries are to be enhanced and interconnected. Here, the focus lies e.g. on the Rail Baltica project, which will establish a highspeed train connection between Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland (European Commission, 2018). Rail Baltica is scheduled to open by 2026 and could be extended through an underwater tunnel, linking the Baltic States to Helsinki (Citrinot, 2019). However, Estonian prime minister Ratas recently announced that the inauguration of the project could be delayed due to the many obstacles the project is facing, most notably the lack of financing (Baltic News Network, 2019). Lastly, water routes between the countries shall also be extended, improving e.g. the water transport system from the Baltic Sea via the Oder, Elbe and Danube to the Black Sea to eliminate current bottlenecks (European Commission, 2018).
Concerning the second dimension of the TSI, the cooperation in the energy sector, the greatest attention is paid to establishing interconnectors of electricity and gas pipelines as well as to enabling reverse flows. The most important project in this regard is the North-South Corridor, which aims to connect the LNG terminals in Świnoujście, Poland to the yet to be constructed terminal in Krk, Croatia. Between both countries, a large number of interconnectors will be installed. A vital exemplar is the Gas Interconnector between Poland and Lithuania, which is set to connect the Baltic states to the rest of Europe and thus potentially constitutes a remedy to the Baltic’s current level of dependence on Russian gas. In this regard, the North-South Corridor could be understood as a response to Nord Stream 2, a project which many CEE countries view with large scepticism, conceiving it as undermining their energy security (Kireev, 2017).
The TSI’s third pillar is the cooperation in digitalisation matters, a sector in which investments are usually much smaller in financial terms compared to the other projects, but whose improvements can significantly contribute to economic growth. Cooperation in digitalisation refers inter alia to the installation of a common 5G network and joint efforts in research collaboration on fibre optic technology (European Commission, 2018). In order to assess the possible positive impact the initiative’s projects could have on convergence between EU Member States, light shall be shed on some of the current sources for divergence between Eastern and Western European countries, before turning to a more political evaluation of the platform.
5. The TSI as potential remedy to divergences between East and West
The TSI’s official communication is centred on the idea that the platform will represent a factor leading to greater convergence between EU Member States and will therefore push forward the European integration process. For instance, the inaugural Dubrovnik Statement expresses that connecting CEE economies and infrastructure will help “complete the single European market” and contribute “to making the EU more resilient as a whole” (Three Seas Initiative, 2016). To analyse whether these promises might hold true, a brief analysis of the region’s characteristics could prove helpful.
According to the latest available data from 2018, 10 out of the 12 TSI countries ranked at the bottom of the EU in terms of real GDP per capita, the only two exceptions being Slovenia and Austria (Eurostat, 2019). Yet, the purchasing power in most Eastern European countries has grown significantly over the last decades. In particular in very recent years, with the economies of large Western European countries like Germany and Italy growing at a slow rate, the CEE can be perceived as “the bloc’s star performers” in economic terms (Bayer, 2018). Despite this amelioration, there is still a lot of room for improvement to equalise living standards across the EU, which confirms the TSI’s raison d’être.
Another aspect closely linked to the TSI and whose proposals could reduce the cleavages between East and West is the question of energy dependency. Chiefly after the 2006 and 2009 incidents between Ukraine and Russia, the European energy security has (re)gained traction in the political discourse. In a study on the electricity infrastructure developments in Central and South Eastern Europe, the European Commission (2016) concludes that there is “major need” for electricity grid improvements to enhance supply security and avoid bottlenecks for the internal energy market. Some members of the TSI have set up or are in the process of constructing LNG terminals to diversify their energy imports and to become less dependent on Russia. To ensure that all CEE countries, including those which do not dispose of sea access, benefit from LNG imports as well as from other energy sources, it is crucial to improve interconnections between the countries. In this context, the TSI could be a central component. As mentioned above, the TSI could also be considered a reaction to the plans of Western EU countries to diversify their energy supply with Russia by creating new pipelines, illustrated by the Nord Stream 2 project between Russia and Germany. The latter was met with fierce opposition in CEE countries, who fear that increased direct flows to Germany might circumvent Eastern Europe and make the region even more vulnerable to Russian decisions (Kireev, 2017).
Lastly, the current state of infrastructure development in CEE still lacks behind. The European Commission estimates that “travelling in Central and Eastern Europe still takes on average between two and four times as long as for comparable distances and terrain in the other 16 Member States in Western and Northern Europe” (European Commission, 2018). A paper on the potential economic effects of the TSI substantiates the concerns of the EU report, showing that especially roads and railroads are underdeveloped in the region (Zbińkowski, 2019; Figure 4). This is partly due to the fact that most of the currently existing infrastructure follows an East-West pattern, a finding that can be traced back in parts to the strong economic position of Germany (Górka, 2018). Therefore, it would be desirable that the TSI could contribute to fostering infrastructure development in the region.
The third dimension of the TSI, focusing on pooling synergies in digitalisation, emerged not as core issue of the initiative, but rather as a side concern which will be of key relevance not only for economic growth, but also to prepare the member countries against possible cyberattacks on the common infrastructure. In fact, digitalisation is already today in many of the CEE countries one of the areas where they can excel their Western neighbours (Patricolo, 2019).
To conclude this section, it seems that - at least on paper - the CEE countries have identified some of the most urgent problem areas preventing their economies from converging to the Western European standards. The proposals by the TSI as outlined in their joint statements appear positive, as infrastructural and energy-related matters can best be achieved through transboundary cooperation. Yet, the initiative is not uncontroversial, and the reactions of some Western EU countries turned out to be very modest. In the following, this paper will analyse why some observers argue that the TSI could prove to be an anti-EU project further fragmentising the Union instead of strengthening its cohesion.
6. The TSI - an anti-EU project? Shedding light on the EU’s and Western Member States’ reaction
Early on the question arose whether the TSI should be seen as a counterpart to the Brussels-driven integration process and could harm the inner-EU solidarity. This argument is fuelled by the fact that many of the Member States participating in the TSI are led by conservative, conceivably EU-sceptic heads of state and government. Some observers suggest that the initiative could be a reaction against the Western approach of a “multi-speed” Europe, presumably leading to several CEE countries feeling downgraded to second-class EU countries (Żurawski vel Grajewski & Baeva Motusic, 2017). This assumption is sustained as the TSI brings together numerous countries that criticised the EU e.g. in the aftermath of the ‘refugee crisis’, including the four countries voting against the refugee distribution quota during the notorious Council session in September 2015 (Birnbaum, 2015).
Hence, some Western Member States initially expressed their scepticism of the idea, fearing a further fragmentation of the European integration process. However, the case of Germany shows how the “Western” attitude towards the project has changed: Considering the policy shift after Donald Trump assumed office in January 2017, the U.S. involvement in the TSI, particularly after the U.S. president attended the 2017 Summit, added a new dimension to the initiative. In the light of the new U.S. president’s increasingly competitive instead of cooperative approach to Europe, the German government started to worry that the TSI might turn into a tool to increase U.S. influence in Eastern Europe, e.g. in the form of a sales market for its gas exports (Janulewicz & Żornaczuk, 2019). As a consequence, Germany voiced its desire to eventually join or partner with the TSI as a “bridgebuilder and moderator in the spirit of European unity” to prevent any drifting apart within the EU (Remix, n.d.). Foreign minister Maas participated in the 2018 Bucharest Summit, underlining the priorities of his “Neue Ostpolitik” in allusion to former chancellor Brandt. Furthermore, he used the opportunity to stress his view that the TSI first and foremost is to be considered rather an economic than a political project (Tagesschau, 2018). While Germany’s wish to join the TSI as a full member was welcomed by Romanian president Iohannis, it failed in the face of resistance of other TSI countries, owing to the unanimity principle. However, these developments, combined with the fact that the rank of the German delegation was even raised at the 2019 summit due to the presence of Federal President Steinmeier, illustrate in an exemplary way the dynamics around the perception of the TSI in Western Europe.
It must be reminded that the TSI in its current state and according to its self-conception is a “flexible platform”. Consequently, it does not represent an interstate organisation seeking to replace the EU, rather it can be perceived as tool to “improve multilateral sub-regional relations at EU level” (Milewski, 2017). In its constitutive statement issued in August 2016 in Dubrovnik, the TSI countries emphasise repeatedly that their joint initiative is meant to contribute to “making the EU more resilient as a whole”, a phrase used in every of the following summit statements. Also, the TSI countries explicitly acknowledge the advancement achieved through the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) as well as through the European Structural and Investment Funds (Three Seas Initiative, 2016). And indeed, it can be stated that many of the TSI projects overlap with EU priorities under the CEF financing programme of the EU. For instance, the European Commission declared that more than 90% of the overall funding for CEF natural gas projects as well as large sums by the European Investment Bank and the Fund for Strategic Investment as part of the ‘Juncker Plan’ go to the TSI countries. Examples are the Baltic Energy Market Interconnection Plan, the BRUA gas pipeline connecting Bulgaria to Austria via Romania and Hungary and the Central and South-Eastern European Energy Connectivity (European Commission, 2018).
To sum up, it can be assumed that if the TSI projects lead to greater economic growth, this will ultimately lead to more cohesion within the EU and hence is in line with EU priorities. In its official communication on the TSI, the European Commission thence argues that the TSI is well aligned with the programmes and funds of the EU and tries to point out how the entire union could benefit from the project. Then Commission president Juncker attending the Warsaw Summit in 2018 can be seen as an expression of the initiative’s conceived alignment with EU priorities.
However, it must be said that this brief analysis was limited to public communication available on the topic, which is bound to certain diplomatic rules and codes of conduct. It remains to be seen how the TSI concretely develops over the next years to better assess the nature, intention and impact direction of the project. Dynamics within the EU are complex and could be analysed on a deeper layer, considering e.g. the critique on EU cohesion funds as presumably not being very effective and the point raised by some that the TSI countries “are connected by the fact that they stand to lose the most from the two-speed Europe idea that some Western politicians have imposed” (Górka, 2018).
7. A politicisation and securitisation of the region by the United States?
As mentioned, the support of the U.S. plays a crucial role in the assessment of the TSI. I argue that the U.S. engagement in the project could be explained as a reaction to a potential securitisation and politicisation of the CEE and, notably, their dependence on Russia. To prove this hypothesis, a brief introduction to the securitisation theory will be given, before applying it to the present analysis.
As the classical schools of IR theory (Realism, Liberalism and Marxism) failed to describe the post-Cold War world order, new theoretical frameworks emerged. One of them, the Copenhagen School, is particularly known for providing an approach that accounts for the rising importance of new topics such as environmental issues, digitalisation and the occurrence of new actors (Buzan & Wæver, 2003, p. 70). The core aspect of the Copenhagen School is its securitisation theory, whose main assumption is that there are no thematic fields which are “securitised” (= representing a security threat) by nature (Balzacq, Guzzini, Williams, Wæver, & Patomäki, 2014). It rather is a society’s task to define security problems, which subsequently will be treated outside the normal political framework. A key element in securitisation is the speech act theory, a constitutive element of IR theory’s constructivism, under which the Copenhagen School can be classified. Arguing that language is not to be seen as neutral, but, alluding to John Austin, “by speaking, we do” (Austin, 1962, p. 6). Thus, “it is by labelling something a security issue that it becomes one” (Wæver, 2004, p. 9).
Regarding the TSI, it can be argued that the U.S. undertake an attempt to securitise the Eastern European dependence on Russian energy imports. During his visit to Poland in 2017, Donald Trump described the TSI as a measure to “make sure that Poland and its neighbours are never again held hostage to a single supplier of energy” (Trump, 2017), using a very clear language at hinting at a securitisation of energy supply. The Atlantic Council described the TSI as a “strategic priority for the U.S. administration […] in light of Russia’s use of energy as a weapon in Europe” (Atlantic Council, 2017). This framing suggests that the U.S.’s major aspiration for the initiative, rather than pushing CEE countries to achieve economic growth and convergence with Western Europe, is to reduce Russia’s role in the region.
Other statements by U.S. officials seem to confirm this assumption. During the third TSI summit in Bucharest in 2018, U.S. Energy Secretary Perry expressed that Europe should decrease its dependence on Russian gas and diversify its energy sources, which would in turn improve the ties between eastern Europe, the EU and the U.S. He went on by highlighting the importance of energy diversity for national security: “There is great security in energy diversity. Energy security is tantamount to national security” (Emerging Europe, 2018). Similarly, the remarks of U.S. General Jones give insightful hints about the U.S. priorities in their support for the initiative. When enumerating his key remarks on the forum, Jones starts by highlighting how the TSI “will strengthen the security and resilience of Northern, Central and Eastern Europe”, before going on by describing how the Russian government uses a “divide and conquer” strategy in Europe to advance its geopolitical objectives (Jones Jr., 2016). Some commentaries went as far to say that the U.S. supports the TSI to slow down the emergence of a multipolar world and the weakening of its predominant position coming along with these developments (Thomann, 2018). As has been noted inter alia by Wiśniewski (2017), the discourse shifted particularly after the Warsaw Summit 2017 which was attended by U.S. president Trump. In June 2017, the first experimental U.S. gas shipping to the LNG port in Świnoujście took place (PGNiG, 2017). Two years later, the first U.S. LNG tankers landed in Poland with gas for redelivery via pipeline to Ukraine, demonstrating again the geopolitical dimension of the project (Bor, 2019). It is this (geo)political component that could perhaps lead to a fragmentation between EU Member States, for instance regarding the (already difficult) harmonisation of foreign policy.
The communication of the TSI itself and EU representatives stands in relatively strong rhetorical contrast to the U.S. announcements. At the Bucharest summit, former European Commission president Juncker pointed out the necessity of regional energy projects and the importance to comply with the rule of law to establish a positive business environment for investments (Emerging Europe, 2018). In addition, the official statements published after each summit focus mostly on the complementarity with EU programmes and the TSI’s potential for the Union as a whole. However, while the role of the U.S. was not even mentioned for instance in the first summit statement in 2016, a positive reference to the economic presence of the U.S. in the TSI region is made in the conclusion of the latest summit in 2019, illustrating the increasingly important role of the country (Three Seas Initiative, 2019).
Summarising this part, one can see the divergent communication on the TSI comparing the statements by U.S. and European representatives. While the EU and the TSI countries primarily point to the importance of the project for the EU and economic growth in CEE, the U.S. highlight its geopolitical potential and seem to seize their engagement in the region to safeguard economic interests. Having said that, in a continuative study, each TSI member’s bilateral relations both with the U.S. and Russia would have to be assessed to get a better understanding of the prevalent dynamics. This is particularly true given that all countries must be seen against their individual economic, political and historical background and accounting for the fact that some countries have e.g. closer ties to the U.S. while other also are more worried about a worsening of their relations with Russia.
8. What next? Prospects for the TSI
It will be interesting to see how the TSI evolves over the next years, as the initiative for now still is a rather loose platform that needs to prove its relevance through concrete measures. This evolution could also perhaps provide greater clarity regarding the nature and priorities of the project. For future developments, an extension could be possible both in thematic as well as in geographical terms.
8.1. Future thematic cooperation
As is outlined in all official statements, the TSI in its current form focuses on the development of infrastructure projects. Some observers expect the regional integration to extent its influence to other fields, such as more political cooperation and potentially even collaboration in military and security-related fields (Żurawski vel Grajewski & Baeva Motusic, 2017). However, these developments are speculative and depend on the outcome of the – comparatively low-level – infrastructural cooperation. One foretaste of what the development into a more high-politics platform could look like is the Bucharest 9 format started in 2015. The latter consists of reinforced military cooperation to “strengthen the resilience on the Baltic Sea – Black Sea – Adriatic Sea axis” against possible threats from the east (Gheorghe, 2018). In addition, there have been numerous bilateral initiatives between several countries taking part in the TSI, as well as the close political coordination between the Visegrad countries. One can assume that an evolution into more political topics could again be highly relevant for the U.S. and another reason for them to support the TSI. Nevertheless, it must be stated again at this point that the platform is still in its infancy and its long-term success is still in the stars.
The closer and more political a future cooperation would turn out to be, the more difficult it would be to forge consensus between the participating countries. Thus, the TSI could be met with the same fate of other international partnership (like, ironically, the EU itself), namely an increased distribution of competences, sub-groups and the emergence of a variable geometry.
8.2. A geographic extension of the TSI? The role of Ukraine, Scandinavia and the U.S.
During the second TSI summit in Warsaw, an issue discussed among the representatives was the question whether other EU members or non-EU countries could and should be included in the initiative, as some speakers argued that such a step could strengthen economic relations and lead to political stabilisation (Górka, 2018).
In its current form, the TSI only includes Member States of the EU and does not comprise external players. However, the newly elected Ukrainian president Zelensky expressed in September 2019 that his country would be interested in joining the TSI (PortSEurope, 2019) and repeated this intention in November (Istrate, 2019). Some commentaries remark that the infrastructure that is to be set up through the TSI, notably the Via Carpathia, would offer the possibility to link the TSI countries to Ukraine both via Poland and Slovakia (Żurawski vel Grajewski & Baeva Motusic, 2017). The question of cooperation with Ukraine in infrastructural matters is posed especially in connection with the visa liberalisation for Ukrainian citizens adopted in 2017 (European Council, 2017). Yet, the accession of the country could be a controversial topic for numerous reasons. Firstly, given the fact that the conflict in Eastern Ukraine has not yet been resolved, let alone Crimea, the accession of the country could cause further tensions with Russia. Also, it is questionable whether Ukraine in its current state represents a safe environment for investments, which play a key role in contributing to the success of the initiative.
Żurawski vel Grajewski (2017) also brings up the question whether Scandinavian countries might be interested in acceding to the TSI. Such move could be relevant, as e.g. Rail Baltica is supposed to link Estonia to Finland prospectively. In addition, some voices argue that new ways of cooperation, such as in the outlined potential for security-related cooperation, could be a reason for Scandinavian countries to cooperate with the TSI, given that there already is some interworking as e.g. Finland supplies military equipment to Poland and other countries of the initiative. However, when talking about such ideas, some doubts arise as to the complementarity of the TSI, since cooperation already exists in other fora such as NATO (keeping in mind that Finland is not a member of NATO) and the EU. Hence, a too broad geographical and thematic deepening of the initiative could fuel the discussion about the TSI’s potential in fragmentising the EU integration.
Lastly, the current engagement of the U.S. leaves room for speculation with regards to possibly even closer TSI-U.S. ties in the future and the consequences for the EU. It does not seem far-fetched that such an involvement could lead to a more tense relationship with both Russia and China. For instance, a stronger role for the U.S. within the TSI could increase the competition with China and “import” the ongoing trade conflict into the EU, e.g. in the digital infrastructure sector (5G technologies etc.), further hampering the already complex decision-making among EU Member States. In addition, further integrating the U.S. could entail the risk of deteriorating EU relations with Russia. This is particularly delicate given that several long-term Gazprom energy contracts with TSI countries will expire around 2022 (Zeöld, 2019). For the EU, enhancing energy relations between the U.S. and the TSI could harbour considerable conflict potential, such as the LNG supply across the Atlantic, which could thwart e.g. the objectives of the new Commission’s European Green Deal. Also, it remains unclear whether the TSI countries have enough capacities to build the envisaged infrastructure and which role U.S. companies could play in this regard.
8.3. And what about China?
As is well known, the Chinese engagement in CEE has increased significantly over the last years, most notably in the context of its Belt and Road Initiative. This engagement is not only limited to Greece and some Balkan countries, which do not form part of the TSI, but also affects some of the TSI member countries. One example is a high-speed rail system aiming to link Serbia to Hungary, which was blocked by the EU for infringing European law as the requirement for a public tender was not met. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán stated in 2018 that “Central Europe will turn to China if the EU cannot provide financial support” (Nikkei Asian Review, 2018). A key grouping in this regard is the “16+1” (since the accession of Greece: 17+1) constellation, gathering CEE countries and China. Within the framework of the 8th 16+1 summit in Dubrovnik in 2019, the Chinese engagement e.g. in Croatia was extensively discussed. According to the latest figures, the largest amount of Chinese money was invested in non-TSI member Serbia, followed by Hungary and Poland (Jung-Grimm, 2019). Therefrom, it will be interesting the monitor potential cooperation between the TSI members bilaterally or even the TSI as a platform with the Chinese government.
9. Challenges arising for the TSI
For the TSI to succeed, it will be crucial that its members share a sense of common destiny and that the things they have in common are more numerous than their differences. The historic example of Intermarium showed that political tensions between the participating countries eventually led to the failure of the interwar project, as Lithuania saw the project as threatening its national independence and political conflicts between Poland, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia made the cooperation difficult (Górka, 2018). Yet, once again, the comparison between Intermarium and the TSI is far from being flawless, considering their different scope of action.
It must however be remembered that the TSI members are by no means a homogenous bloc of countries, but that each country faces particular domestic issues and certain specificities in its international relations. Some authors argue that the TSI countries can be clustered into different groups of countries. For instance, the Baltic states are relatively prone to external shocks due to their open economic structure and are in a special relation with Russia, considering their geographic proximity and Russian minorities in their countries (ibid.). On the other hand, the Visegrad countries are characterised by their polarised political landscape with very conservative, sometimes nationalist parties exerting major influence. In other countries like Romania and Bulgaria, corruption plays a more important role than in other TSI countries, which might also entail consequences for the TSI projects (Transparency International, 2018).
In addition to these factors, it can be expected that the TSI as an intergovernmental forum will face similar challenges that all international fora encounter, notably diverging priorities and political orientation of member states and paralysation of decision-making after the election of new governments (Milewski, 2017). An example of domestic politics directly affecting the TSI is the fact that Serbia was not invited to the initiative due to its conflict with Croatia, which in turn complicates the interconnections between Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, considering the geographic location of Serbia (Górka, 2018). In a similar manner, some TSI members put more emphasis on having a close relation with Western EU countries than others, and the willingness and interest in cooperating with the U.S. also varies from state to state. The same can be said about the relation with Russia, as e.g. Viktor Orbán recently discussed future gas deliveries and the role of nuclear energy with Putin, saying that he rejects “all Western European criticism regarding our cooperation with Russia in the field of energy” and repeatedly calling for the ending of EU sanctions on Russia (Than & Soldatkin, 2019).
Moreover, establishing a cross-border network in the fields of energy and digitalisation creates new risks which must be mitigated through appropriate measures, notably due to the threat of cyberattacks and hacking. This challenge exemplifies how the TSI could interact with existing structures, such as the Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, located in Tallinn and serving as base for NATO experts in cyber security.
This paper has tried to assess the nature, potential and challenges of the Three Seas Initiative as a platform for cooperation between twelve Central and Eastern European countries. The analysis showed that the focus of the TSI on cooperation in infrastructure, energy and digitalisation could indeed lead to increased convergence within the EU. This finding explains the reaction of EU institutions to the project, e.g. Juncker participating in the 2018 summit, and their interest in supporting concrete projects through EU funding. This is all the more the case as the EU recognises the need for better infrastructure in Eastern Europe in numerous analyses.
In the second part of the paper, the role of the U.S. in the initiative was discussed, showing that the Trump administration has repeatedly focused on the assumed threat to the national security resulting from the significant dependence of CEE on Russia in energy imports. It could be argued that an excessive engagement of the U.S. could in fact lead to an increased fragmentation of the EU, for instance by further complicating a joint EU position in foreign policy. Also, the mere role of TSI countries as a sales market for U.S. LNG must be scrutinised.
The diverging approach between EU and U.S. could be seen as highlighting the different impact direction of both entities, the EU focusing primarily on economic aspects and infrastructure in this matter, whereas the U.S. (through NATO) exerts influence in security issues. A main question over the next years will be the complementarity of the TSI with both existing structures. For now, it seems that the TSI infrastructure projects are well aligned with the priorities laid out inter alia in the Connecting Europe Facility and the European Fund for Strategic Investment. The concrete implementation will be dependent on the further evolution of goals, projects and priorities. To put it into other words: as the project develops in practice, its conceptualisation will evolve accordingly (Żurawski vel Grajewski & Baeva Motusic, 2017).
It can be expected that the platform will encounter several challenges, some of which on a more conceptual level (like the question of cooperation with non-TSI countries) and some others on a more operational level. For instance, access to capital will be key to carry out envisioned projects. The recent announcement that the planned date for the inauguration of Rail Baltica most likely cannot be met serves as an example for what might happen if an only insufficient amount of private investments can be mobilised. A deeper analysis of the TSI would also have to look more closely at the different sources of finance. Many of the 48 outlined priorities require huge investments, since e.g. regasification capacities will have to be enhanced so that interconnectors between the TSI countries can function flawlessly. The establishment of the TSI Business Forum as well as of the Three Seas Investment Fund are a welcome step to guarantee the involvement of the private sector and to attract investors (CEEP, 2019).
For the platform to work, political compromises with regards to its priorities and goals are key. Hence, a more in-depth analysis of the topic would have to scrutinise more in detail the role and positioning of every member country to work out similarities and differences between the participants. Regarding the initial research hypothesis, it can be concluded that the project with its current focus on regional economic development has the potential to push for more convergence within the EU, whereas a shift towards a more political project could, in certain circumstances, reinforce the current fragmentation. The TSI still is in statu nascendi, only the future will show if the coalition can enhance the CEE countries’ role in actively shaping the process of European integration and, accordingly, foster greater European cohesion.
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