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Three Seas Initiative goes beyond abstract regional concept

The idea of an alliance between the countries of Central and Eastern Europe has remained a popular theory over the past century. Despite this, outside actors have kept such an idea from becoming reality. The Three Seas Initiative of today possesses the potential to truly realize this coalition in testing times.

April 10, 2024 - Jozef Hrabina - Articles and Commentary

Springtime in Vilnius, host city of the Three Seas Initiative Summit 2024. Photo: Shutterstock

It has been almost a decade since a new regional grouping emerged with ambitions of connecting the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas encompassing most of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Initially met with apprehension for its lofty goals that went well beyond simple interstate cooperation in CEE, the Three Seas Initiative (3SI) was spearheaded by Poland. Overall, Warsaw aimed to enhance transport infrastructure and economic cooperation among the most diverse and least developed regions within the European Union.

Today, the 3SI is not only gaining momentum but has also broadened its mandate, all the while boasting a track record of successful projects. Understanding regional nuances and continental challenges, such as energy security and the conflict in Ukraine, the initiative has evolved into a platform for addressing pressing needs. The grouping emerged from a shared history of geopolitical shifts and economic transformations, with participating nations recognizing the importance of connectivity and collaboration in advancing their collective interests. By pooling resources and expertise, they aim to bridge longstanding infrastructural gaps, stimulate economic growth, and reduce dependency on external actors.

From abstract to practical

Recent projects within the framework of the 3SI demonstrate its commitment to enhancing regional connectivity and resilience. Infrastructure ventures such as the Via Carpathia and Rail Baltica aim to improve transportation networks. This will help to facilitate the movement of goods and people across the region. Additionally, energy projects like the Baltic Pipe and the synchronization of electricity grids will only further bolster energy security, reducing states’ vulnerability to external disruptions and enhancing self-reliance. In keeping with the bloc’s long-term vision for connectivity, the investments ensure collaboration across 13 countries. Existing investments are primed to grow exponentially, with many new opportunities on the horizon.

Above all, the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund (3SIIF) stands as the bedrock of the practical, real-world impact that the 3SI is having on the region’s development. In just four years, the fund has invested well over 700 million euros in projects across sectors such as renewable energy, transport, logistics and digital infrastructure. The 3SIIF is also showing great promise in its collaboration with key regional institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in certain sectors.

The fund’s investment in the Port of Burgas in Bulgaria looks set to establish an alternative hub on the Black Sea – itself at the centre of ongoing international intrigue. The port increasingly offers a competitive entrance to the European market for international traders. With infrastructure already in place and scalable, it will likely be a major logistical hub facilitating the reconstruction of Ukraine in the years and decades to come. Investment in 2022 was astute above all and prioritized practicality, with the 3SIIF purchasing a significant minority stake. This move is astute when viewed in isolation but essential when understood in a broader context.

The latest purchase of locomotives in Poland by Cargounit – wholly owned by the 3SIIF – is the largest in the country’s history. It is also a statement of intent dedicated to improving rail and broader supply chain connectivity among partner countries. Furthermore, investments in port infrastructure and railways aim to boost the export capacity of the European Union’s industrial powerhouse, benefitting from international trade. The realization that theory has become reality is by all means a turning point, as it opens doors for a region historically characterized by untapped potential. Despite this, it is now well on its way to maturity.

On the whole, these projects not only enhance connectivity within the region but also address pressing needs. Aside from transportation improvements, renewable energy projects aim to bolster energy resilience in a region largely dependent on Russian energy sources. The fund’s investment into the group R.Power Renewables is indicative not only of the wider transition to such forms of energy but of the bloc’s intention to work alongside European partners. The EBRD invested jointly with the fund, bringing together 250 million euros which, among other activities, will see the development of greenfield sites in Poland and Romania. Since the fund’s investment into Enery, which is principally a solar platform, the investment footprint of the business has expanded to cover ten countries in the region. This, coupled with positive signals from the likes of the US, suggests that the initiative and the fund are making significant progress.

The interdependence of CEE countries is undeniable and connecting the region will attract investors, increase economic activity, and improve the operations of existing businesses in the region. Yet the Three Seas Initiative transcends mere infrastructure endeavours; it embodies a multiplicity of perspectives and priorities among its member states. Poland, a driving force behind the initiative, sees it as a means of asserting regional leadership and reducing reliance on Russian energy sources. For Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the 3SI offers an opportunity to integrate further with Western Europe while strengthening ties with their neighbours. Meanwhile, countries like Croatia and Romania view the initiative as a catalyst for economic development and attracting investment to their respective regions.

Changing tides in the Three Seas region

Looking ahead, the 3SI will be gearing up for its ninth summit on April 11th in Vilnius. Top of the agenda will be the threats posed by the war in Ukraine. As most of the 3SI members have historical experience with the Russian Empire and later with the Soviet Union, this region has pivoted toward containing Russia. Indeed, the fund’s core investment in the Baltics has focused on digital connectivity. A majority stake in the Greenergy Data Centers initiative reaffirms the need for comprehensive digital security in a region that has historically pioneered its development. With cyber threats from Russia, the region has defaulted to a “front line” position, and the appetite to utilize AI in digital security cements its place as a hub for the future.

Likewise, establishing the right infrastructure has aided Ukraine in exporting its products and its overall survival today. Additionally, much-needed aid to Ukraine flows through Poland and Romania, the two most active members of the 3SI.

The Three Seas Initiative resonates with Henry Kissinger’s belief that the composition of CEE has been a source of great power struggles over the past three hundred years. An overly fragmented region invites predatory powers to prey on smaller states, whereas a unified bloc poses a challenge to the status quo. Therefore, a grouping like the 3SI can serve as an answer to this dilemma, with the region acting as a balancing coalition against great powers that would otherwise prey on its fragmentation. Although the idea of a balancing coalition remains more of a concept than reality, with the right political and economic bodies in place, existing synergies can be transformed into a fully-fledged international vehicle.

To realize its full potential, the Three Seas Initiative must navigate these challenges while remaining true to its founding principles of improving the region’s cooperation and connectivity.

Jozef Hrabina is a lifelong devotee of international relations. His research focuses on strategic security, great power relations in the 21st century, multipolar systems stability, Eurasia, geopolitics, geoeconomics and interconnection between geopolitics and trade. Holding PhDs, he is studying international relations on both academic and commercial levels. Jozef now runs his own consultancy, GeopoLytics, dealing with geopolitical, macroeconomic and political risks intelligence.

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