Central European states do not need rivalry, they need joint efforts

Interview with Mateusz Gniazdowski, deputy director of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), Warsaw

Mateusz Gniazdowski, Octavian Milewski
29 June 2017

How would you explain Poland’s activism on a series of regional project proposals such as The Three Seas Initiative and Intermarium? What foreign policy perceptions drive with these two new concepts?

Poland’s activity in the broader Central European region is a natural manifestation of the need to strengthen traditional ties with our neighbours and the process of European integration in our region. From the very beginning of the Visegrad Group (1991) Poland declared it placed particular emphasis on infrastructural development within the region and cross-regional cooperation. Nevertheless, establishing connections with Western Europe became the priority.

Naturally, this resulted also from the significant needs associated with the rapidly developing economic cooperation; the V4 countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) had become the Germany’s greatest trade partner worldwide, and it also turned Vienna into one of the biggest European transport hubs. However, the strengthening of the internal cohesion of the individual countries was poorly synchronised with the consistency of the whole Central European region. Although the bottlenecks on the borders have not deterred the dynamic development of trade within Central Europe, there is still significant economic potential to explore and tap into once the connections have improved.

This also means that broader infrastructure will create opportunities for the peripheral areas to become attractive for investors, especially the mountainous regions. That being said, it is precisely in the Carpathian mountain range where the most barriers and bottlenecks are located in Central Europe; however, this issue has been addressed in the Common Spatial Development Strategy of the Visegrad Group + Romania and Bulgaria.

In recent years, territorial cohesion has become an important element of EU policy. Trans-European networks are aimed at supporting the development of internal markets and at increasing economic and social cohesion within the EU (e.g. to connect the regions without access to any sea and the more peripheral countries with the centre of Europe). More specifically, our countries are responsible for developing connections between the Adriatic, Baltic and Black seas. Most of the infrastructure options for Romania and Bulgaria go through the V4 countries, and Poland remains the main land link which the Baltic States have with the rest of the EU.

What is the difference between the Three Seas Initiative and Intermarium? Is there any functional division within the institutions of the Polish state in promoting these two regionalizing projects?

Intermarium is a term rather from historical area of political thought and political journalism, not a specific political proposal from Poland. In Poland, thinking about the area between the seas (Intermarium) grows out of the tradition of seeking ways to strengthen the position of nations living “between Germany and Russia” – strengthening their subjectivity and sovereignty in the games between the powers. In the tradition of political thought of each of the nations of the region there are some elements seeking to escape from the geopolitical vice of the “crumbling zone” by strengthening regional cooperation. In the Polish tradition, the Intermarium region extends to the East and covers our

In the Polish tradition, the Intermarium region extends to the East and covers our eastern neighbours outside the EU and NATO, especially Ukraine and Belarus. Reflections on security, identity and values in the wider area of the broadly understood Central and Eastern Europe are the subjects of discussions on the parliamentary meetings promoted by the leadership of the Polish parliament.

Nowadays, the real operationalization of the intellectual concepts of Intermarium is primarily to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank, to strengthen cooperation between the Central European countries in the EU, and to work to bring our Eastern European and Western Balkan neighbours closer to the EU and NATO. On the other hand, the Three Seas Initiative of the countries between the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Sea, is based on an idea of the Polish and Croatian presidents and is closely linked to our presence in the EU. It is an idea to strengthen the EU’s “eastern lungs”. This is a strictly sectoral initiative with no participates from non-EU countries and where Austria, which has been in the EU slightly longer than the countries of our region, is also present due to its strategic location and numerous important regional links. The TSI links the various EU macro-regions and in this respect is an action to improve the EU’s integration and cohesion.

The Three Seas Initiative (TSI) is not focused on building a new bloc, but on strengthening the development of North-South ties in our part of the EU. The North-South axis does not contradict the East-West dimension – it complements it, especially in areas such as infrastructure, business initiatives, telecommunications and the development of modern technologies. The presidents of our countries could promote cooperation between governments and other stakeholders in the region and stimulate cooperation with “big” external partners, which also include the US administration.

In July there will be a summit of the Three Seas Initiative in Poland. Donald Trump is expected to attend the summit. Is this a statement in itself about the importance of the Initiatives?

The expected presence of the US President in Warsaw at the summit of the TSI is both an opportunity and a challenge to make this presence well-used and to make this meeting well understood in the EU. Those who already point to the threat of restoring the division between “old and “new” Europe are advised to read the Dubrovnik statement, which constitutes a political framework to provide support for specific projects designed to help Central and Eastern Europe develop to the level of other EU countries. It is about strengthening the EU and bolstering its cohesion; it should not be seen as an alternative to the EU. In order to accelerate the process of convergence with the countries of Western Europe we need new impulses in the field of investments and development. Some of them may come from the USA. The United States has its interests in our region, including business interests. They are sometimes more compatible with the interests of our states than the approach of some of our key EU partners, in particular Germany. This in particular applies to energy security issues, which is clearly evident in the approach to Nord Stream 2 project. All our countries are keen on optimizing cooperation with Germany, but also wish to preserve close transatlantic links, which are particularly important in the context of Brexit.

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Digital technologies and telecommunications also have a Central European territorial dimension – we need to strengthen the digital infrastructure that connects our countries. The presence of our largest ally in this sector is not just a matter of business synergies but also of strengthening the security of important sectors of our economies and the question of our responsibility for our part of European market. Moreover, in cooperation with the US, the countries from the TSI region can deepen their expertise in cybersecurity.

Is there any functional overlap between these two projects and V4, for instance? How do the states of the V4 group perceive these two initiatives and what would be the role of V4, in particular in the Three Seas Initiative?

There is some functional overlap between the TSI and V4: The TSI is developing ideas which V4 has been implementing for years, especially in the ‘V4 plus’ format. Other countries of the TSI region such as Romania and Bulgaria or Slovenia and Croatia participated in this format of sectoral cooperation. In the Centre for Eastern Studies, along with the think-tanks from the Think Visegrad consortium, we wrote analyses pointing to the need to strengthen the territorial dimension of V4 + cooperation on the North-South line, long before this was politically exposed by the TSI. The development of the gas infrastructure and the north-south corridor has become the “V4+” flagship project, as well as the efforts to develop transport cooperation, including new corridors such as Via Carpatia, whose aim is also to strengthen the road connection between Poland and Romania.

For Poland, Visegrad cooperation remains very important and the TSI is complementary to the V4 + format. The added value of the TSI is to strengthen the ‘V4+’ cooperation by lending it presidential cachet and avoiding the political discomfort that some countries may have with ‘V4 +’ initiatives without formal participation in the core V4. I think that for Romania the cooperation as part of the TSI could strengthen Romania’s political position as a significant state of regional cooperation between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. The initiators of the TSI are the presidents of Croatia and Poland, but they play the role of ‘Primi Inter Pares’ and other countries should feel themselves to be equal partners in it. It would make sense for the next summit to be held in Romania.

What is the role of bilateral partnerships within such initiatives? Would for instance the Polish-Romanian strategic partnership play a constructive or contributing role in either of the two initiatives?

The bilateral component is very important, although the strategic partnership with Romania should be complemented by initiatives in other sectors, such as investment and the business or non-governmental sector. The relationship between Poland and Romania, two fast-growing countries with expanding trade relations, should play a more important role in expanding regional cooperation within the EU between the Black Sea, the Danube and the Baltic Sea. We do not have a Central European macro-regional strategy, but we share a number of common challenges in some areas of development, such as the Carpathian region.

Our states are also leading the region in a responsible approach to security, which is particularly important for strengthening NATO’s eastern flank. The presence of Romanian soldiers in Poland (120) and Polish soldiers in Romania (220) under the Tailored Forward Presence of NATO is a sign of close cooperation. The Polish Ministry of Defence announced the key role of the military integration of the countries of the region and the establishment of the next international command at the corps level in Cracow; this is also a manifestation of our allied responsibility for the NATO eastern flank area between Poland and Romania. Co-operation among the largest eastern states of the NATO flank is certainly important, also in tripartite (Poland-Romania-Turkey) form, to optimize allied action in the region.

Could such initiatives, especially Intermarium, build better regional dynamics on potentially multilateral frameworks such as between Poland, Romania and Ukraine?

Strengthening the cooperation between the three seas will lead to our states being strengthened states in the EU. And a stronger position of our region in the EU will also translate into stronger support for the development of cooperation with the EU’s neighbours in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. It will be also a stronger and more effective voice for EU enlargement. We know well in Poland that for Romania the pro-Western orientation of Moldova is particularly important in this context. Enhanced co-operation between the states of the wider Central European region in the EU should also result in better coordination of our activities in the EU neighbourhood. We do not need rivalry here—close cooperation and efforts are needed.

A final question concerning the bilateral relations between Poland and Romania and the unearthing of symbolic historical myths between the two countries. Next year Poland and Romania celebrate one century since the end of WWI. For Poland this meant regaining independence and the creation of the Second Republic, while for Romania it meant the Great Unification of the country. Do you think that our countries could find important historic moments as an inspiration to extend the Polish-Romanian partnership? 

I think the 1918 anniversary is a good occasion to celebrate together. In OSW we are especially aware of close historical relations between Poland and Romania. In our office there is a photograph of Polish and Romanian soldiers in Kolomyia during the ceremony to hand the Pokuttya region over to Poland in 1919. Moreover, Julian Eberhardt, the brother of the present OSW director’s grandfather, was manager of the Romanian railway CFR in 1917-1918. It is worth remembering that tens of thousands of Poles who had to retreat from the double Nazi-Soviet invasion found refuge in Romania in 1939. Our fate was tied to the direct effects of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact and the shared concerns of Russian imperialism and revisionism. But we do not really know each other very well. Polish people sometimes are surprised that King Jan III Sobieski – the victor of Vienna and Parkany and ‘Sobieski și românii’ are slightly different stories… The pillar of cooperation between the three seas should also be better mutual understanding and the development of people to people contacts. Poles and Romanians can benefit from this in a special way.

The interview was conducted by Octavian Milewski and published in Romanian in the weekly Revista 22, no. 25, June 27, 2017, p. 8.