Main Image Credit A map of the Three Seas Initiative member countries. Courtesy of monika/Adobe Stock
A project to strengthen the infrastructure and resilience of Central European states merits UK engagement.
The Three Seas Initiative (3SI) is a project fostering cooperation between 12 EU member states bordering the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas. In a report commissioned by Daniel Kawczynski MP and published recently, we argue that it is in the UK’s interest to engage in the Initiative. The alternative scenario is that other forces may come to dominate the region economically in the decades to come.
Economic and Geopolitical Aspects of the 3SI
The states representing the 3SI are some of the fastest-growing economies in Europe. Poland, Croatia, Austria, Czechia, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia and Slovakia have for years argued in favour of a regional bloc drawn along the north-south axis, fostering overlooked infrastructure and diversifying energy sources. They are now creating the most ambitious project in Central and Eastern Europe of our time.
Although the geopolitical implications are indisputable, the project is predominantly economic. The report highlights the 3SI’s successes since its inception in 2016, including an ambitious plan to develop over 150 energy, transport and digital infrastructure projects. The 12 states have established a commercial Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund, managed by London-based Amber Infrastructure Group, to attract investment in commercially profitable projects. Future investments from public and private investors are expected to reach €3–5 billion, and the aim is to secure involvement in projects with a total value of up to €100 billion. There are advanced talks taking place with development banks in the US and Japan and with global private capital. The report argues that London should seize the opportunity to secure its position in Central and Eastern Europe by investing in the Fund. UK firms are already among the top trading partners in many 3SI countries.
The 3SI’s Place in the EU – a Catalyst or a Hindrance to the European Family?
There may have been concerns about whether the 3SI is a project aiming to compete with the EU or to create a force in opposition to Brussels. For the report, we have interviewed the Ambassadors of all 12 states. They have denied that the Initiative has political ambitions, arguing that the 3SI is a pro-European project that complements the existing regional cooperation formats. The priority for the 3SI is to build coherent and integrated infrastructure in Central and Eastern Europe, allowing the region to make up for development delays resulting from historical events. Most of the 3SI countries ended up behind the Iron Curtain after the Second World War, which took a toll on their economies. As a result of the 3SI projects, the infrastructural and economic inequalities of the common European market are expected to be reduced.
The US as a Patron of the 3SI
The 3SI has so far received bipartisan support in the US. Former President Donald Trump attended the Three Seas Summit in Warsaw in 2017, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed the Biden administration’s commitment to the Initiative in February of this year. Further bipartisan backing was provided in November 2020 by the US House of Representatives, with a resolution ‘expressing support of the Three Seas Initiative in its efforts to increase energy independence and infrastructure connectivity, thereby strengthening the United States and European national security’.
This year, Croatia and Poland opened two liquefied natural gas terminals to diversify the energy supplies of the bloc. The aim is to increase imports of gas from Scandinavia, Arab states and the US. Russia still has strong energy dominance over parts of the region because of Soviet-era infrastructure, contracts and new projects such as the Nord Stream II pipeline.
China and the Region
The report warns that if countries in Central and Eastern Europe cannot obtain enough US and UK support for the 3SI, they will turn increasingly towards China. While some of Chinese technology giant Huawei’s attempts to introduce 5G to the region have been hampered for now, China has been steadily increasing its influence via other means. Beijing already owns Greece’s port of Piraeus, the largest shipping port in the Mediterranean.
Furthermore, China has established the ‘17+1’ Initiative, which mirrors the 3SI to a certain extent. According to Chinese plans, Central Europe would form part of the supply chain of the Belt and Road Initiative and act as a distribution hub for Western Europe. Some members, such as Lithuania, have recently parted ways with the 17+1 and established closer relations with Taiwan instead. Others have not followed suit, however, and it seems that Chinese infrastructure and development offers are being considered.
What are the Stakes for the UK?
The report concludes that stepping up engagement with the 3SI would be a win-win scenario for the UK. This high-growth region is full of opportunities for the UK, both economically and geopolitically. As part of the UK’s post-Brexit global strategy, it needs to find ways to entrench its strong position in Europe rather than allowing potential adversaries to disrupt the European map. Ambassadors of the 12 3SI countries already share London’s vision for a stronger transatlantic economic alliance. They have welcomed UK support, as witnessed by the warm greeting of former Secretary of State Dominic Raab during the last 3SI summit in Sofia.
Additionally, investing in the multitude of 3SI projects could bring revenue back to London that will benefit future generations. Participating in international initiatives such as the 3SI would prove that while the UK has left the EU, it has not left Europe, and the intensification of cooperation could help secure more favourable trade terms for the UK. Furthermore, strengthening the 3SI would improve communication with the UK’s closest allies, ensuring the UK’s ability to respond quickly, robustly and effectively to incoming challenges and crises.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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