2018 can be a decisive year for the future of the Three Seas Initiative. The summit of presidents of Three-Seas countries, to be held in autumn in Romania, will have to clearly demonstrate that the initiative is mature and will soon yield tangible political and economic results.
The name reflects concisely the essence of this initiative. The expression “Three Seas” has been used on purpose for this project of regional and infrastructural cooperation within the European Union to avoid confusion with the historical and geopolitical concept of Intermarium of the post-First World War period. The latter was rooted in the geostrategic idea according to which this part of Europe was a buffer zone of colliding interests. So the Intermarium idea was historically linked to a certain period in time and had a markedly geopolitical character. By contrast the initiative we are talking about is a modern, contemporary idea founded on very specific economic and infrastructural considerations.
The Three Seas Initiative (TSI) is a cooperation among the three Baltic States, the V4 countries, as well as Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, focused on economic development and investments. The plan took shape as a result of the fact that the countries of this part of Europe became aware of their common basic needs.
What are these needs? First of all, regional integration is quite weak along the North–South axis. After joining the EU, our countries – for more or less obvious reasons – have been integrated along the East–West axis. Having successfully included Central European countries into its structure – mostly into its common market structure –, it was in the EU’s interest to connect them along the same axis infrastructurally as well. Thus they were able to reach the new markets with their goods, while exporting further east, in the direction of Russia became easier for the Western countries. But as a natural corollary of the dynamic development of West to East connections, infrastructural developments along the North–South axis were neglected. This has been a huge shortcoming in this part of Europe, with specific economic repercussions. Countries of our region do not see their markets as integrated but consider them rather to be mutually competitive. According to this logic a Slovak investment is viewed negatively in Poland because what is a gain for Bratislava must be a loss for Warsaw. At least that is how economic relations have been perceived in our region until now. Since the North–South axis was not considered as being in the common interest, we all thought that a development in one country will always be realised at the cost of another. But it is not necessarily so. This is the number one element that has to change in the perception of the region’s developmental needs.
Secondly, the lack of infrastructural connections has negative effects for the security of our region, especially as regards energy security. In the matter of energy sources, we are constantly subject to outside pressure, especially from the east. This entails serious drawbacks for military security in the classical sense as well. We must not forget that the lack of transport infrastructure restricts for instance the mobility of a supporting army in case of conflicts and threats.
Thirdly, the Three Seas region would be most at risk of fragmentation in the case of any possible division of the European Union. What we mean here is a truly sharp division – not just a relatively “soft” one, as we are witnessing today – into a multi-speed Europe. We are at risk because our region has several so-called internal frontiers within the EU framework: it is divided by the eurozone (some countries are within, others are outside the eurozone), the Schengen area (some of them are Schengen countries, others are not), and also by its members’ attitude to military security strategy (certain countries in Central Europe struggled for the presence of NATO troops on their territories while others did not request their presence but counted on the security umbrella of the Union instead). There are numerous other fields where our region is divided, in a more or less formal way. Therefore if the Union became permanently fragmented along a multi-speed Europe, leading to the disintegration of community institutions or the European market, our region would suffer from it most. In this situation it is crucial to make the area of the Three Seas “too big to fall apart”, in any case big enough not to succumb to a possible internal European division. That is why it is vital to intensify cooperation within our region.
Add to these elements the context of our own Polish way of thinking about our Southern policy. The diagnosis is not favourable – we have completely neglected this aspect of our policy in recent years. Our horizon often stopped at the Hungarian border as our top-priority regional project has been the Visegrád Group, which – as we see it today – is being increasingly effective and is delivering concrete benefits in European policy. The V4 format, however, did not provide us with the opportunity to develop our relations with areas south of Hungary. We did not have any realistic or specific goals or interests concerning countries like Croatia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria. This area has been practically excluded from the scope of our policy, which is a paradoxical situation given that this is not the other side of the world but our close political neighbourhood. The present situation is detrimental and will have to be remedied as soon as possible. This factor was a strong motivator for us to set up – together with Croatia – the TSI.
The above needs analysis clearly shows that the initiative is a realistic project as it reacts to real shortcomings, needs and gaps. The key to its realisation, as well as the factor that seems to be the engine of positive change – is infrastructure itself. Thanks to this engine, the magnitude of the potential impact could be much greater than the extent of the undertaking itself. Even though the initiative is only taking form now, thanks to its great potential it has already produced resonance worldwide. I am convinced that the TSI – although barely started and still in the “political incubator” (after two years, two summits and a minimum degree of institutionalisation of the current cooperation) – will be met with great interest outside Europe as well. Up to now no other concept of regional cooperation provoked similar attention as does the TSI. This is also due to the fact that the initiative, quite unprecedentedly, was formed spontaneously. It was not a derivative of plans created by outside centres. The TSI has never been financed, nor “suggested” by anyone, nor is it directed against anyone’s activities. It simply grew out of the needs of our countries and this is its most valuable asset. But this also means that by committing ourselves to its implementation, we may find ourselves in conflict with certain intertwined interests manifest in our part of Europe, whose negative symbol may be epitomised by the Nord Stream 2 project. The extent of these interests is directly proportional to the intensity of the lobbying for Nord Stream’s second pipeline. This project has a strongly anti-European character, in contrast with the pro-Europe nature of our TSI.
It is important to know that several investments are already being realised in our region. Thus we are not talking about an absolute “void”. The aim of the TSI, however, is to provide a forum for thinking about different processes going on in our region in a more concerted, strategic way. If we just take Polish examples – that Polish companies have a bigger share in railway transport in Croatia today, they are investing in the Port of Rijeka, that Poland opens a ferry connection on the Klaipeda–Gdańsk line, it builds energy connections in cooperation with the Baltic states towards the European market through Poland, it builds gas terminals in the region and receives gas from alternative sources, and there is talk of the Via Carpathia (a transport corridor connecting the Baltic States with southern Europe) – all this indicates that the TSI is something strategic and not just temporary, it is something we can organise into a complex project. And this is how the TSI will become reality.
The geographical dimensions of the TSI still need to be explained. The expression refers to the fact that Central Europe has, as it were, three windows to the outside world: the Black Sea, the Adriatic Sea and the Baltic Sea. Everyone who believes in the unity of Europe and the need for the continent to become more integrated should be sincerely committed to the Three Seas idea. This project is, so to say, a “practice” in European unity on a smaller scale: the more integrated Central Europe becomes, the bigger its market grows; the more mobile and infrastructurally connected the region is – the more effectively it is able to contribute to the common European interest. The TSI has never been a competitor of the EU and in no way does it undermine the European community. Why would it? Each and every country of our region clearly benefits from the unity of Europe. The societies and enterprises of our countries are all aware that a divided Europe would be an unfavourable outcome for them. In this part of Europe we are, on the contrary, concerned by tendencies of disintegration coming from Western Europe (the growing waves of so-called protectionism and attempts at desintegrating or splitting up the common market). Reports coming from the West that undermine the conviction that the market is common and should remain so give indeed rise to serious concern. For our own sake we should preserve it as a means of economic freedom and should not let it become a means of economic manipulation. But today some governments regard the rules of the common market as tools aimed at distorting competitiveness instead of creating an area of freedom. We consistently believe in a competing market in which we can capitalise on our competitive dominant positions because we have every right to do so. But to be able to do so in the future as well, we will have to count ourselves as a group of integrated countries capable of taking collective action, precisely in the interest of a unified and competing European market.
Seen from this perspective, we would like to create a situation within the framework of the TSI in which Polish entrepreneurs and their regional partners recognise the value of mutual regional investments and regard our region as an area of natural expansion. The Three Seas is a market where our companies can conclude beneficial deals and develop. We would like to persuade Polish enterprises that our region is full of business opportunities, market gaps, and possibilities to exchange investments. The Three Seas Summit, to be held in 2018 in Bucharest, will have to yield concrete economic results. It should not be just another meeting of politicians but a markedly business-oriented summit. I would like to emphasise that we are all aware that without this economic component our initiative will be seen as just another proposal and not a real opportunity.
And what shall we do when we become satisfied with the way things are, that is, when we achieve regional success? Then we shall act according to the principle known from history: “Tu felix Austria nube” – “[Let others wage war;] thou, happy Austria, marry!” Then we shall introduce the TSI into the circulation of world economy by properly marrying it to other initiatives.
Translation by Orsolya Németh