“The Three Seas Initiative is first and foremost a regional cooperation initiative within the European Union (EU), within EU Member States, in collaboration with the EU, using the EU, its funds and its development to strengthen regional cooperation, link the countries of our region to each other, and simultaneously connect our region with all other European countries ”.
– Polish Minister Secretary of State Szczerski
We’d like to thank Marine Audette for her collaboration on this article.
The Three Seas Initiative (TSI), also known as Intermarium, is a forum created in 2016 at the initiative of Poland and Croatia. The primary objective of this forum is to build a cooperation between the countries of Central and Eastern Europe – stretching along the vertical axis of Europe: the Baltic Sea Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland on the coast of the Baltic Sea, towards the shores of the Black Sea in Bulgaria. This forum therefore lays the foundations for a new cooperation primarily economic, within the European continent.
Can the Three Seas Initiative be seen as a new form of regionalism within Europe? Can the Three Seas Initiative be understood as a new area of investments in this continent? Can this cooperation be seen as a new analytical framework in the relations between the countries of Western Europe, Central Europe and Eastern Europe? What are the real ambitions of the Three Seas Initiative project? How is it perceived by Russia and the United States?
I. The Forum of the Three Seas Initiative, an energy initiative
According to the official joint website, the first goal of the three seas initiative is to “boost economic growth and well-being in the region.” As “More activity in trade and the provision of services within the region and with neighbouring countries creates such opportunities and makes Europe, as a whole, more competitive in global terms.” This relatively vague and broad objective in fact introduces the third goal: “Energy security. Energy is not only an economic issue, but has also become a strategic and security concern. A cohesive, well-functioning energy market and the freedom to choose between suppliers will increase open competition, ensure that the region is better supplied, and boost energy security.”
Although the EU as a whole relies extensively on Russian fossil fuels, Central and Eastern European countries are particularly dependent on them. Indeed, according to Eurostat, 30% of the EU’s petroleum oil imports and 39% of total gas imports came from Russia in 2017. For Estonia, Poland, Slovakia and Finland, more than 75% of their imports of petroleum oils originated in Russia.
The cooperation between all these countries emerged in order to find alternatives to this energy dependence. One of the goals is building up infrastructure to import gas from other suppliers to Poland and Croatia, which can then distribute it to other Eastern European countries, in particular those belonging to the TSI. According to most experts, the vast majority of this would be made up of gas coming directly from the United States.
The countries that are part of the Three Seas Initiative all joined the European Union belatedly and all had a common past with the former Soviet Republic, and nowadays maintain checkered relations. This “new dependence” which this time would rely on the United States is generally seen by many as the best alternative to date, as it would be admittedly be difficult for Poland or Croatia to obtain supplies from countries that are adjacent to Russia. Central European governments feel that Russia, through various policies, maintains a grip on countries formerly under its control. Researcher and atlantist Aleksy Borowka calls Russia’s usage of its gas exports as a geopolitical instrument “energy blackmail”, which refers to a large fossil fuel producing country asserting its dominance over countries with low energy diversification, using its favorable position to take advantage from their high level of energy dependence. This concept is best demonstrated by the “northern lights” and “Yamal” gas pipelines, which are some of the most important sources of energy supply for Central and Eastern European countries. The fact of having control over such an essential infrastructure for their economic security makes these countries very dependent, giving Russia a clear ascendency and thus the upper hand in diplomatic negotiations.
Therefore, in order for the TSI countries to be able to become genuinely autonomous and guarantee their economic security, it is essential for them to become “an efficient geopolitical system capable of diversifying the origin of their natural gas supply toward non-Russian sources”. In the TSI’s case, it would imply a homogenization of the member countries’ geostrategic policies, especially concerning investments in infrastructure.
Or in the Black Sea region, the construction of a pipeline connecting Romania to Austria. One of the biggest projects is the construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal on Croatia’s Krk Island, first proposed as long ago as 2013 and was the subject of the first summit. The total funding drawn from European Union funds is more than 155 € billion. Thus, once equipped with all these infrastructures, the Three Seas Initiative will be able to become more energy independent and this will also allow it to strengthen its weight on the front of the European stage.
The energy goal presents a lot of problematics as whole :
- First, the US energy dependency has become impossible, as under the Biden presidency – and probably under his successors as well – America will mainly be an energy dependent country. Already in 2019, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the U.S. imported 9.1 million barrels per day (MMb/d) of oil from about 90 countries, though at the same time it also exported 8.5 MMb/d of oil to about 190 countries. The KeyStone XL pipeline project annulation has set problematics which will drastically lower US export capacities towards Europe.
- The trend is more towards a collaboration with Russia, not against. Long term Western Europe Russian partners, such as Italy and Germany, have pushed towards the construction of larger and new pipelines. It is important to underline that German and Italian gas imports from Russia accounts together for almost half of the EU’s gas. Germany in particular, in a bid towards cleaner energy, is trying to phase out some of its coal power plants. France, while more autonomous due to its large nuclear program, has supported the Nord Stream program.
- No viable alternative seems to be able to fuel the Three Seas initiatives’ energetic hunger, safe for an expansion into nuclear energy. This is the road taken by Slovakia, for instance, and Slovakia alone. Poland, Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic are building new nuclear power plants, but as an energy diversification bid. Lithuania has chosen by referendum to close all nuclear power plants in 2012.
- Funds coming from the Three Seas Initiative in their own are extremely modest when compared to the EU ones.
- And last but not least, there is no serious alternative for energy import. The second and third largest energy exporters towards Europe, Norway and Algeria, have both reached their maximum production levels. 
Apart from Austria and Czech Republic, both very well integrated in the Western infrastructures, most countries of the Three Seas have some catching up to do in terms of transportation infrastructures. Cooperation between all these countries would allow them to catch up with the already existing infrastructures. It was to address this problem that the issue of infrastructure was addressed at the Warsaw summit in 2017. In this perspective, many infrastructure construction projects have been put forward.
The Three Seas Initiative launched the objective of developing its own advanced communication network. The”Via Carpatia” project perfectly reflects this goal: Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia and Hungary have come together in 2006 in order to put forward the ambitious initiative of building a major highway which would mean very efficient and rapid transportation between those countries. Later, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece have joined this enthusiastic program that will eventually allow to drive from Klaipeda in Lithuania to Tessaloniki in Greece on a single expressway. This initiative meets the initial aspiration of the TSI: connecting efficiently three seas – although in this project the Baltic and the Black seas would be connected to the Aegean Sea rather than the Adriatic. Efforts have also been made to improve the telecommunication network, with the desire to create a telecommunications platform that will link the different countries by 5G. Developing a unified regional policy for the 5G technology is vitally important in order to gain autonomy over this growing technology and to counter the increasingly hazardous Chinese influence over this region. All these projects would lead to a strengthening of the TSI on the European stage.
II. Towards a new EU region?
Officially, the Three Seas Initiative is presented as cooperation project inside the European Union, and is not intended to compete with it.
This official position fools no one, and certainly not the TSI members themselves. In 2018 the TSI decided to change its format and move from “intergovernmental cooperation to cross-border cooperation between the regions concerned by the common projects of the Three Seas Initiative” , taking a step closer to consolidation. The creation of a parliamentary assembly which could include representatives of countries outside of the 12 countries already adhering to the TSI but also of countries that are not members of the European Union, starting with Ukraine or Moldova as well as the creation of an investment fund, suggests that this forum aims to expand geographically. By accepting the idea of including countries that are not members of the EU, the Three Seas Initiative vows to consolidate the bases of institutions with a permanent vocation. In theory, as it is thought out in the European treaties, any inside-EU initiative cannot be detrimental to EU unity as a whole. This “Parliament” legitimacy is being contested and might be infringing EU law. Additionally, the TSI has its own investment fund, it is able to strengthen its economic weight but also to arouse more investors’ interest as a potential investment hub.
By putting together their economic power, the TSI could become a new pole of political influence where both the Russian vision and the American vision could confront each other. In addition, this agglomeration of countries could with time come to rebalance the forces already present within the EU, in particular, the Paris-Brussels-Berlin axis. TSI countries represent 120 million inhabitants – or 22% of the European population, which can be seen as a strong argument for seeing the Three Seas Initiative form in the long term as a potential competitor of the main axis Paris-Brussels-Berlin. More important, it represents the most dynamic part of the EU. Countries like Poland or Hungary do not individually manage to make themselves heard on the European scene. This is why the TSI can be understood as a future counterweight to the main Paris-Brussels-Berlin axis, insofar as this association brings together more than twelve countries and through which there is a certain consensus in terms of political vision and is set to have more impact.
However, this project is far from gaining unanimous support within the European Union, in particular with Germany, which has entered into a partnership with Russian oil companies in order to begin its energy transition from fossil with coal to cleaner energies. This is why, in the long term, this issue may accentuate the sometimes very visible divisions that may exist between Western Europe and Central / Eastern Europe.
By itself, the Three Seas initiative has flaws. First, the initiative seems to be only a Polish and US backed venture so far. A clear infographics from the Heritage Foundation shows how over 90% of the Contributions to the TSI Funds so far are attributed from Poland the US, which shows little implication from other countries.
Secondly, there might be a potential rivalry between Poland, the natural leader – central and largest country in the ITS , and the other powers of the alliance. Czech politicians in particular, have always been suspicious over Warsaw’s role in regional initiatives such as the Visegrad Four. Poland’s ambitions of turning itself into a regional gas hub serving up US liquefied natural gas (LNG) are also seen warily by some of its peers. Czechs are also wary of formalizing any east-west split in the EU, preferring an integration with already existing Western infrastructure. “The extent to which the 3SI is compatible with the much more powerful tools brought by the EU will be a major marker of its success or failure,” suggested Jiri Schneider, a senior associate at the Visegrad Insight think tank and former foreign minister in Prague. Another example is that out of the TSI’s 77 priority projects, the Czech Republic has provided just one, a grandiose plan to spend billions on canals. The scheme, first suggested in the 14th century, is widely condemned in Czechia as a colossal waste of time and money; few believe it will ever make it off the drawing board. Another example : Hungary pushes way more towards an East-West integration than a local network than Poland.
Last but not least, priorities differ from one country to another. Estonia is now pushing for digital infrastructure to take the lead. Others, however, remain fixed on transport and energy, which make up 83% of the current 3SI project list. Some of these projects come with strings attached, analysts point out. “For the Nordic and Baltic states, the infrastructure to be constructed must allow for the transit of military equipment within the region,” wrote Piret Kuusik of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute. “Are investors prepared for the additional expense needed to follow these standards?” she wondered.
While internal considerations delay the growth of the project, geopolitical considerations could revive the expansion and the creation of a true regionalization.
By allocating 1 billion euros for the Three Seas Initiative on February 15, 2020, Donald Trump has left many surprised. The Trump administration made it clear that it was a its bid to thwart Russia and China’s growing sway in the region: as such, the help was conditioned on giving up Russian gas or Chinese telecommunications technology in order to buy from the US. There are also voices in the region that point out that while US officials have made high profile and grand announcements about backing schemes such as TSI, work on the ground has been limited. There is however no doubt about the existence of a high bi-partisan support for the TSI coming from Washington. 
The bid to unseat Moscow or Beijing might also look more convincing if Washington were to put more than 1 billion dollars on the table. However, that dollop of cash does appear to have been sufficient to allow the US to settle in the EU’s backyard, with its presence now keenly felt by both critics and supporters of Washington’s interest as aimed to raise TSI resilience to Russia’s dominance of energy supplies, or counter China’s offer to bankroll rail and road upgrades under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As the newly passed US resolution states, the “shared goal” in increasing connectivity between the three seas is there to “counter Russian and Chinese malign influence”. “Good to see bipartisan support in the house for the Three Seas Initiative, which could become a private-sector led alternative to China’s BRI,” – Michael Carpenter, a foreign policy advisor to President Joe Biden, tweeted in January. This 18th of February, US secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, in an official statement has renewed the Biden government implication in the project, without ever indicating when and whether the funds would be allocated.
On the other hand, through this sudden interest in this new regional cooperation, the United States perhaps saw in it the beginnings of a new bulwark against the growing influence of Russia in this geographical area. Indeed, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have always seen Russia as a serious threat since the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1991.
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 As Mr. Ian Brzezinski noted in his intervention at the conference “Central European Visions: The Three Seas Initiative and its Possible Impact for Central Europe”, 25th November 2020 , link at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RI9wWMEMn6o / The US House of Representatives in November passed a bipartisan resolution in support of the Three Seas Initiative (3SI) – a partnership to develop infrastructure across Central and Eastern European (CEE) – in a strong sign that the incoming administration will maintain US support for it.
 Secretary of State Video : https://video.state.gov/detail/videos/top-stories/video/6232984921001/secretary-blinken-remarks-on-the-three-seas-initiative?autoStart=true