Poland, Trump and the Three Seas Initiative


14.07.2017 – Sebastian Holz

It is safe to assume that many had to look up The Three Seas Initiative (TSI) when it was announced that US President Donald Trump would attend the format’s second summit in Warsaw. Founded one year ago, the Polish-Croatian initiative tries to push for more Central European cooperation in the field of energy security. Reactions have been mixed, both within and from outside the region.

The group was formed in Dubrovnik in August 2016 and includes 12 nations of Central and Eastern Europe: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. All but Austria are post-communist states. Its goal is to diversify and secure energy supplies by creating a regional distribution network and terminals for the delivery of American Liquid Natural Gas (LNG).

Compared to the founding summit, participation in Warsaw was significantly more prominent: Out of the 12 participating nations, 10 sent their heads of state (6 in Dubrovnik). Only the Czech Republic and Austria were represented by other high level officials. Cooperation on energy security apparently manages to bring this diverse region together.

However, the prospects of the TSI evolving into a powerful political format within the European Union are low. After all, this is far from the first attempt to unite Central Europe. So far, key divisions among the countries of the region have always prevented meaningful joint action. The Visegrad Group (V4) meets regularly but seldom agrees, specifically when it comes to a common stance on the relationship with Russia.

Not to speak of the ever-popular Piłsudskian idea of an Intermarium federation between the Baltic and the Black Sea, led by Poland. Whereas this proposal of linking two seas is awaiting realisation since the 1920s, the Three Seas Initiative is adding one more sea and the complicated Balkan region to the mix, arguably making things even more difficult.

Polish ambitions towards leading a regional political alliance are therefore likely to remain unfulfilled yet again. Internal scepticism about a political dimension to TSI is already showing.

Officials from the Czech Republic voiced criticism before the summit that a Central European alliance excluding Germany would not be desirable. Consequently, the Czech Republic declined to send its Head of State or Government, instead the president of the parliament attended the summit.[i]

Austria was only represented by its ambassador to Poland, Thomas Buchsbaum, the lowest-ranking official at the summit. A leading Austrian news site had previously published a comment entitled “Drei-Meeres-Initiative: Wo wir dabei sind“ (Three Seas Initiative: What we joined), asking the question if Austria was really willing to join a political alliance with the “illiberal democracies” of the Central East.[ii] In an interview with Deutsche Welle, ambassador Buchsbaum highlighted the un-political nature of the project.[iii]

Reactions to the initiative in Western Europe had been muted since its inception. Germany is weary of Central Europe’s vocal opposition to its NordStream 2 pipeline project with Russia. Beyond that, several of the participating countries, most notably Poland and Hungary, have long been seeking to form an alliance to counter the Brussels mainstream, mostly over the controversial issue of migration. Considering its guest list the Warsaw summit had been branded “an international conference of pariahs”.[iv]

The invitation of the controversial US President only added to those fears. Some in Brussels worried that Trump would use his visit to implicitly endorse the creation of such an “Eastern Block” to counter the French-German tandem, thereby further dividing the European Union.[v] Trump seems to sympathise with the “illiberal democracies” of Central and Eastern Europe and had strongly criticised the EU and Germany in the past.

In his remarks at the opening ceremony of the summit Trump pledged his support for the initiative but strictly limited himself to highlighting its energy- and infrastructure-related goals, promising LNG deliveries in reliable supply. He shied away from openly endorsing any political project or explicitly supporting the ruling authorities of the host country. [vi]

Rather than a euro-sceptic block TSI really does seem to be about energy security. Its approach here is pragmatic and entirely sensible: linking the existing LNG terminal in Świnoujście with a planned facility on the Croatian island of Krk will help insure the region against Russian gas extortion. It also sends a strong message against Germany’s ill-advised NordStream 2 pipeline project.[vii]

Accordingly, the European Union should be cautious with overt criticism of the Polish-Croatian initiative. Both energy security and closer cooperation among member states are in its own interest, a political alliance against Brussels is nowhere in sight. Fears that Trump would endorse an illiberal block within Europe have so far not been validated. His speech at the summit in Warsaw remained vague in that regard. Western European criticism of the project would only serve those in Central Europe that would like to see such a movement emerge.[viii]

 

[i] https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/polen-trump-101.html

[ii] http://derstandard.at/2000060911892/Drei-Meeres-Initiative-Wo-wir-dabei-sind

[iii] http://www.dw.com/pl/austriacki-dyplomata-tr%C3%B3jmorze-to-inicjatywa-infrastrukturalna-nie-polityczna/a-39630402

[iv] http://visegradinsight.eu/new-initiative-could-trump-the-visegrad-group/

[v] https://www.welt.de/politik/ausland/article166320555/Wie-Donald-Trump-Europa-spalten-will.html

[vi] https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/07/06/remarks-president-trump-three-seas-initiative-summit-july-6-2017

[vii] http://www.forum-ekonomiczne.pl/article/nord-stream-2-stakes-are-high-for-germany/?lang=en

[viii] https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/opinion/dismissing-the-three-seas-initiative-is-counter-productive-for-brussels/