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A nation must think before it acts.
As the European Union works to maintain a competitive edge economically against Beijing and Moscow, regional cooperation initiatives throughout Europe have taken center stage. The Three Seas Initiative (3SI) is one such promising example. 3SI launched in 2015 and held its first summit in 2016 in Dubrovnik, followed by annual summits across member-states. 3SI was created to promote connectivity among the nations of the Black, Adriatic, and Baltic Seas regions, supporting infrastructure, energy, and digital projects. 3SI has geopolitical, economic, and energy security significance. The twelve countries that are part of the initiative are Bulgaria, Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia. As a part of a Soviet legacy, east-west infrastructure remains more developed than north-south linkages. This dynamic creates issues not just for the 3SI states themselves, but for all of Europe, particularly for the EU’s quest for energy independence. The dominance of east-west pipelines and limited alternatives to those pipelines have been factors in Europe’s continued energy dependence on Russia.
Russia’s near-monopoly as an energy supplier for most of Europea gives Moscow significant political and economic leverage. In this context, 3SI plays a substantial role in sustainable and deeper European integration. It also serves as an important tool for expansion of European energy infrastructure and can open up new routes for alternative suppliers.
The 2021 Three Seas Initiative Summit was held in Sophia, Bulgaria, to evaluate progress and to plan future steps. Participating leaders discussed the challenges and prospects of ongoing projects in energy innovation, transport, and digitalization sectors. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, in his opening speech, highlighted the readiness of 3SI to collaborate with other regional and global actors. Member states declared, “We remain open to collaborate with other regional and global actors with whom we share the same democratic values, the European and transatlantic orientation goals, and common interests.”
Despite the strategic importance of the Black Sea region, the initiative only consists of European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries, even though 3SI does not set any limitations to non-NATO/EU member countries. Notably, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova are not members. All three have Association Agreements, free trade agreements, and visa-free travel agreements with the EU. In October 2021, Ukraine expressed interest in joining 3SI. In January 2021, in a joint statement with Moldovan President Maia Sandu, the leaders of the two countries reaffirmed their interests: “We put emphasis upon the willingness to strengthen cooperation with partner countries in South-Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. In this context, we reaffirm our interest in being part of the Three Seas Initiative.”
Recently, Tblisi, Kyiv, and Chisinau signed a declaration aiming to deepen their cooperation with the EU. On July 19 at the Batumi Summit, all three of the country’s leaders discussed the importance of 3SI, “We will explore cooperation possibilities with the Three Seas Initiative as a move towards achieving EU connectivity goals and anchoring our states physically with the EU.” The Polish and Estonian presidents have spoken about how important it is to integrate the three countries into the initiative and how the membership will provide Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia with significant economic and political opportunities. Some 3SI countries oppose their membership because of their high energy dependency and relations with Russia, or for their non-compliance with the level of economic and democratic development.
Disengagement of the Associated Trio from 3SI creates a power vacuum. Joining 3SI would mean improving the countries’ transportation, which would allow for better mobility and connectivity of the north-south axis of Central and Eastern Europe. This would include the development of tunnels, railways, bridges, and roads, as well as upgrading port infrastructure. It would also ensure secure and sustainable energy supply and include projects such as North-South Gas Corridor-Expansion between Hungary and Slovakia, extraction of unconventional gas developments, and solar power. Notably, the Baltic Pipe is among priority projects in which Ukraine is considered as a partner country and connects Poland with Slovakia and Poland with Ukraine. Digitalization and IT infrastructure projects include the adaptation of GSM-R towers to 5G and the development of cross-border data centers. Out of all 77 projects, 51% are for transportation. 32% energy development, and 17% digitalization. Joining 3SI will ensure sustainable development and predictable policy choices from Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova.
Ukraine’s transit potential will contribute to the development of infrastructure of all 3SI members. They would all benefit from Ukraine’s domestic underground gas storage facilities, which would contribute to the formation of a more competitive gas market and common energy security. 3SI has a number of projects which would utilize each country’s strategic location, such as Viking train, which aims to link the Baltic and Black Seas. Rail-2-Sea will connect cargo coming from the Black Sea to northern Europe. The Danube–Black Sea Canal creates a favorable condition for the potential development of non-EU members and promotes energy security. Currently, 3SI has 48 priority projects. Notably, 13 non-EU countries have been involved in at least one infrastructure project.
Certain countries’ positions regarding priority projects and future policy remains inconsistent. Every country views 3SI priority projects from a different lens. Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary are not proponents of the initiative. Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Austria have not contributed to the initiative, while Hungary contributed €20 million. For example, while Hungary considers infrastructure projects one of the greatest potentials, Czech Republic and Slovakia remain skeptical regarding the feasibility of the infrastructure projects. The future of the initiative and its potential for enlargement to non-EU members, particularly the Associated Trio, remains vague. During the recent summit, there was no discussion about the potential to invite new members into the initiative despite Polish and Estonian attempts to involve non-EU Black Sea countries. Some countries remain hesitant because of the security threats coming from Russia in those countries. Another reason for 3SI members’ skepticism is the level of Associated Trio’s development. The Associated Trio countries are still implementing reforms to bring their economies closer to EU standards. Even former Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid remarked that Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova might need 20 years of work to achieve EU membership.
Engaging non-EU member countries in 3SI projects can benefit the EU, especially when it comes to the development of transport corridors and energy diversification. Diversifying energy sources away from Russia will shift the power dynamic in Europe and weaken Russia’s geopolitical position.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.