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Three Seas? Yes, please!

The Biden administration could use the Three Seas Initiative to engage with Central and Eastern Europe and counter Russian and Chinese influence in the region.

July 30, 2021 - Kaitlyn Lee - Articles and Commentary

Countries part of the 3SI. Map by MKA Graphics / Shutterstock

As the United States and other debt-ridden economies recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, now might not seem the best time to honour a one billion dollar pledge to support the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). However, the benefits of this pledge to the 3SI will help America make great strides to fulfilling its objectives in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). These involve security, energy independence, stability and prosperity.

The Three Seas Initiative was founded in 2015 by the presidents of Croatia and Poland in order to increase cooperation between CEE countries in the development of essential infrastructure. This includes various energy and telecommunications projects. The 3SI links member states between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas and currently has 12 members (Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia). Apart from Austria, all of these countries are members of both the EU and NATO. 

These countries came together to “complete Europe” in an effort to overcome various historical legacies that remained after the fall of the Iron Curtain. One clear byproduct of Soviet domination in the region was that all energy supply lines tended to lead back to Russia. Transportation infrastructure was so poor that there were few fast and reliable links between states in the region. This left cities poorly connected, especially when compared to their Western neighbours. When the Soviet empire collapsed in 1989, the condition of CEE states’ infrastructure was laughably bad and years behind the West. The 3SI aims to overcome these deficiencies by connecting these 12 countries to each other and also to their neighbours and allies outside the region.

Central and Eastern Europe has much to gain through the initiative. This includes economic development, shorter travel times between capital cities (by car and train), faster and more widely available internet links, and an abundance of energy resources all built for the 21st century.

Despite this, perhaps the most important benefits are strategic in nature. By working together, these states can decrease their energy dependence on Russia, build telecommunications networks fit for sharing sensitive EU and NATO information, and improve transportation infrastructure for more resilient economies. Better roads will also make it easier to move NATO troops across the region. The benefits of the 3SI do not only mean “completing Europe” but rather ensure that in the future Europe remains “whole, free, prosperous, and secure”. This of course benefits CEE countries, as well as the EU, NATO and the US.

When CEE countries no longer rely on Russia for energy it will be difficult for Moscow to hold them captive to its demands. This occurred in 2006, 2008, and 2014, when Russia shut off the natural gas supply to Ukraine and by extension many other CEE and Western European countries. With the region diversifying energy markets and creating new liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals, America is also gaining new markets for its natural gas exports. This is especially true in the case in Croatia. A stronger telecommunications network will only encourage cooperation designed to keep Huawei out of Europe, a top priority for Washington. Additionally, a modern, connected CEE means more trading partners for a variety of US exports as the economy recovers.

The Three Seas Initiative currently has a list of 77 international projects meant to accomplish its goals. Altogether these have an estimated price tag of 500 billion euros. However, problems of funding can arise when projects span more than one country. To overcome this, the 3SI created an independent investment fund in 2020, which controls all of the decisions related to finances, priorities and time frames. The fund assesses priorities partly based on the best return of investment. This ensures that the 3SI remains not only a financially viable endeavour but a lucrative one as well. As a whole, the 12 member countries have the potential for great economic growth, with GDP set to grow by 35 per cent by 2030. On a global scale, this is one of the most promising regional projections. 

The fund still needs buy-in from outsiders in order to reach the required 500 billion euros. When the US government pledged support to the 3SI fund, it added credibility to the project. When America meets this pledge, other governments are likely to follow suit, along with private investors. Doing so shows that the US honours its pledges and supports its allies. This contribution not only shows that America supports its transatlantic allies and is resuming its global leadership role. Certainly, it also serves as a warning to China and Russia, who continue to meddle in Europe. Overall, Washington’s involvement shows that the transatlantic alliance is as strong as ever and is committed to meeting the challenges of the future.

Three Seas Initiative member states met on July 8th and 9th in Sofia to discuss last year’s successes and various projects yet to come. At this time, the US offered only words to reaffirm its commitment to its Central and East European allies. Since the Biden administration has made no mention of direct financial support, we can only assume that the government is focusing on other matters. However, by dragging its heels on the 3SI America is only encouraging Russian and Chinese attempts to influence the region. It is important that the US does not renege on its promise and the Biden administration should act before it is too late.

Kaitlyn Lee is a linguist and Western Balkans area specialist. She works as a Title VIII Transatlantic Leadership Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. She is a recent graduate of the Robert F. Byrnes Russian & East European Institute at Indiana University

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