Great power competition is converging in Central Europe. The threat Russia poses has not diminished since it annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas in 2014. But now a new player has emerged, this time from the Far East. China is gaining a foothold in Europe via its Belt and Road Initiative—which also aims to fundamentally change the political-economic status quo. Now, more than ever, the region needs a coherent and unified strategy to face these rising challenges.
A new Central European regional framework launched by Croatia and Poland in 2015-2016, the Three Seas Initiative (TSI), could fill this void and become a “new Marshall Plan” for Central Europe, by Central Europe. Originally intended as a forum for political dialogue among 12 EU country presidents, the TSI seemingly runs parallel to U.S. foreign policy goals: containing Russian and Chinese malign influence, strengthening NATO, and building a resilient energy community for the 21st century.* Moving forward, the plan is to create a long-needed North-South axis between the Adriatic, Baltic, and the Black Seas for energy, (rail)road, and digital infrastructure. But there is a long road ahead. As of November 2019, the initiative has failed to attract enough capital for regional projects. Is this too little, too late?
Led by Poland, the energy pillar of the TSI seeks to strengthen regional energy security, counter the Russian-backed gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 (NS2), and bolster the region’s energy interconnections and storage infrastructure. Warsaw has found regional partners for this, hence the development of the Polish-Slovak gas interconnector, an underground gas storage facility in Slovakia; Hungary-Croatia and Hungary-Romania connecting infrastructure that is able to transfer gas from both directions; and the construction of a key LNG terminal in Croatia.
The TSI’s security component seeks to increase intra-regional military mobility by developing a joint transportation network through three main projects: (1) the Solidarity Transport Hub, Poland’s new national airport project, (2) the regional roadway project Via Carpathia, and (3) the Rail Baltica railroad, which links Lithuania and Romania on EU territory and provides European standard-gauge railways for military transport to the Baltic countries from Poland.
The TSI’s most underdeveloped digital pillar—5G, telecommunications, and optical networks—is gaining increasing importance as China is actively seeking primacy in this sphere in the region and in the greater transatlantic neighborhood. By developing a unified regional 5G policy, the TSI could create a bulwark to Beijing’s malign influence.
In the United States, support for the TSI is growing—but slowly. At a recent conference, U.S. Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher argued that “a safe, prosperous, and resilient Three Seas region is essential for a Europe strong and free.” Further, the TSI’s goals already align with existing U.S. initiatives in the region. The U.S. administration’s Partnership for Transatlantic Energy Cooperation (P-TEC) references the TSI. Washington has worked towards bilateral agreements on 5G with Poland, Romania, and Estonia. On the Hill, Congress has put forward three bipartisan initiatives supporting the TSI: the “Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act of 2019,” the “European Security and Diversification Act of 2019,” and most recently, H.RES.672, introduced in October 2019.
There are, however, three hurdles to the TSI’s successful development. First, long-term Gazprom energy contracts are set to expire across the region by 2022. If TSI member states are to meet their energy security goals, then they must quickly achieve their gas storage development, energy efficiency, and alternative sourcing needs.
The second hurdle is financing the initiative. As of November 2019, the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund has only secured two contributing states with one more indicating willingness to join. Further, members have failed to draw major commercial interest. As a result, the Fund is undercapitalized: it oversees 500-600 billion euros but needs at least two trillion euros.
Third, the current lack of European unity presents a major obstacle. There is considerable variation between regional and European-wide views on the urgency of the threat posed by China’s 5G plans. The energy goals set in the TSI run at odds with the on-the-ground reality, as work on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 construction continues. How can the TSI succeed in a divided region and a divided continent?
Beyond greater European unity, the answer to these questions, it appears, is support from the United States. Although the TSI is connected to existing U.S. foreign policy initiatives, uncertainty remains about Washington’s approach. U.S. support for the TSI must happen quickly and before Washington’s attention is diverted by the approaching election season.
While the framework of the Three Seas Initiative seems—in part—to answer the core issues facing the future of the region, the future of the TSI is by no means guaranteed without an immediate and stronger commitment to the initiative from both sides of the Atlantic.
The author would like to thank Nathalie Marková and Marcello deLesdernier for their contribution to this article.
*** The 12 EU members who in 2015 started the TSI dialogue are Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.