Date: 7 January 2020
The Year 2020 to Be of Key Importance for the Three Seas Initiative
The upcoming months will be of key importance in many areas. The results of the next presidential election in the United States, which will determine whether Washington continues or radically changes its course both in domestic and foreign policy, will be extremely important not only for the future of Americans, but also for the entire world. As regards the Central European region, the year 2020 will be of key importance for the Three Seas Initiative, a project inaugurated by President of the Republic of Poland Andrzej Duda and President of Croatia Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović during the 2016 Dubrovnik Summit.
Why can we put these two upcoming events which are so different in their dimensions and meanings into one category? Contrary to appearances, they have several common denominators and are interrelated. The Three Seas Initiative will soon be entering a special phase. After years of developing a new regional project, from holding unofficial meetings between the heads of state of Central European countries to agreeing on a list of concrete investments in infrastructure, we should observe the implementation of the first projects in the coming months. This will be particularly important as the entire initiative is based on the shared belief that Central European countries are lagging behind Western Europe in terms of transport, energy and digital infrastructure. The Three Seas Initiative (with the exception of Austria) includes the new EU Member States, which devoted the first years of being in the European Community primarily to building relations with Brussels and other major Western European capitals, often at the expense of regional cooperation. To this day, there are still no direct railway connections between Warsaw and the Baltic States, moreover, there is also no railway link from Warsaw to Bratislava without having to pass through the Czech Republic. Travelling by car from Tallinn to the Black Sea is often a challenge, as it is much faster and more convenient to get to Paris than to Bucharest. During their first years as the EU Member States, post-communist countries managed to modernise communication infrastructure in the East-West direction, which was possible thanks to large funds allocated from the Community budget. However, projects in the North-South direction could not count on such generous funding, which is best illustrated by the history of the struggle to obtain EU funds for the construction of the Via Carpathia road route running along the eastern border of the EU, which eventually turned out successful in 2019.
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In these circumstances, it was necessary to give a new, strong impulse to promote cooperation among the countries of the Central European region, and this is precisely what the Three Seas Initiative has a chance to become. Yet, neither Poland nor even Croatia is in a strong enough position in the EU to be able to guarantee the success of their new idea. The attempt to launch an original and autonomous (from EU institutions) new mechanism for regional cooperation has not been greeted with applause in Western European capitals. This is because the Three Seas Initiative violates the European status quo, which has been maintained since 2004. To date, the practice has been based on the passive absorption of EU systemic and legal solutions, sometimes even imposed on the new Member States by the argument of force, such as the decision on the quota system for the distribution of refugees in 2015. Until the 2016 Dubrovnik Summit, the only local organisation actively involved in the region was the Visegrád Group, however, it needs to be stressed that the group had been established long before the first post-communist countries joined the EU, as it has been operating since 1991.
The Three Seas Initiative has a chance to prove that the new EU Member States can actually come up with a proposal, and gradually, but successfully, persuade other partners to join them in their enterprise. It is worth recalling that China and Turkey sent the strongest delegation from outside the region for the first inaugural summit in Dubrovnik in 2016. Beijing and Ankara were represented by Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs Liu Haixing and Ahmet Yildiz. The United States was represented by a much lower level official, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs at the US Department of State, Hoyt Brian Lee. It was only the Donald Trump administration which realised that the Three Seas Initiative could be an opportunity to strengthen the US presence in Central Europe. Otherwise, there was a risk that the position would be taken either by China, which has already started investing in the region, or by Turkey, which intends to restore its great power status. This explains why the 2017 Warsaw Summit of the Initiative, which was attended by President Trump, turned out to be a great political event that attracted media attention from all over the world. The American guest sent a clear signal that Central Europe is an important region on Washington’s map, which can become a significant recipient of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and a business partner in other projects. What is more, the US interest mobilised EU institutions to become more active, which resulted in the attendance of the President of the European Commission at the subsequent summits of the Three Seas Initiative. Even Germany, previously speaking in a disrespectful tone about the entire project, suddenly, through the words of Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas, declared its new-found Central European identity and the willingness to join the Three Seas Initiative. However, there is one condition that needs to be fulfilled so that the project can be called a success of all those involved in a few years’ time. This requirement is the US readiness to become financially involved in regional projects, since the lack of capital is yet another common denominator of Central European countries, which, to a large extent, limits the region’s competitiveness compared to Western European economies. This, however, does not mean that all major investments need to be fully financed by US capital, because the Three Seas countries stand ready to participate and to engage their own funds, which is most evident in the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund established in 2019, to which six of the twelve countries involved in the project have already joined. Nonetheless, taking into account the increasingly smaller EU budget for cohesion policy, without additional US investments, some of the planned projects will remain in the dream sphere. That is why the year 2020 will be so important on both sides of the Atlantic.
Piotr Bajda, Ph.D., Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University Professor, has been a university lecturer at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University (UKSW) in Warsaw since 2007. In 2006–2013, he was a research fellow at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. From 2000 to 2004, he served as a vice-director of the Polish Institute in Bratislava; in 2005–2009, he worked at the Centre for Eastern Studies. In 2013–2016, he held the position of a Polish representative of the International Visegrad Fund.
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