New initiative could trump the Visegrad Group

The question needing to be answered by EU leaders will be whether they think Trump is willing to cut off his nose to spite his face

Wojciech Przybylski
27 June 2017

“New Europe” was a term coined by the administration of former US president George W. Bush.

When the USA decided to invade Iraq, this term was used to differentiate between – and celebrate – the solidarity of new Nato members compared to the reluctance of the old allies.

Since then, the intricacies of European politics – from smaller initiatives to larger regional alliances and even to the inner-workings of the EU itself – have grown considerably.

Many wishing to weaken Europe’s position and potential on the global stage try to exploit this division of old vs new, and it is something all leaders on the continent should be wary of.

With that still in mind, on 6 July US president Donald Trump will arrive in Warsaw and take part in an assembly of one of these regional alliances, the Three Seas Initiative (TSI) – a meeting of the EU leaders representing Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).

The three seas is a reference to the countries situated between the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Seas.

The initiative is seen as a major diplomatic triumph of the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, who is also the leader of the TSI and desperate for a win.

However, the TSI is just one of many political groupings in the CEE region with a primary focus on influencing EU policy. Other such groupings of more or less importance are the Visegrad Group (V4), Slavkov triangle, Danube Region, Weimar Triangle and Nordic-Baltic cooperation.

While their main focus is on fostering cooperation within the EU, such formations are becoming increasingly interesting for external powers such as China (in the so-called 16+1 format) and now the US.

Trump’s visit will definitely put a spotlight on the TSI and help this format to continue.

TSI members – Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia – pledged in their founding declaration a year ago to foster regional projects in the areas of energy, transportation, digital communication and economic sectors in CEE.

However, according to analysts who are advancing the concept, like Bartosz Wisniewski, the head of research office at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), the region still has a long way to go when it comes to its economic development.

The TSI is meant to complement connectivity between the East and West of Europe, with greater connectivity along the north-south axis, thanks in no small part to the EU’s financial contribution.

Not quite quid pro quo

The US has already increased on their military presence in the region, even more so than had been originally promised by the administration of former US president Barack Obama.

The LNG (liquid natural gas) terminal in Swinoujscie, Poland – a strategically important facility allowing for more energy independence in the region – has only recently celebrated the arrival of its first transportation from the US and awaits its next shipment from Qatar, and other countries.

Justifiably suspicious of their eastern neighbour, Poland will most likely take the opportunity to support the recent sanctions that were proposed by the US Senate last week on contractors for the Nord Stream 2 (NS2) project, as well as other significant Russian businesses.

In comparison, both Trump and Hungarian PM Viktor Orban have sought to lift the sanctions on Russia, a sentiment that is also shared today by Austria, a member of the TSI, whose companies are contractors for the NS2.

However, according to PISM these differences are fine, as they are neither an attempt to undermine European integration, nor a block to ward off Russia.

To the Czechs and Slovaks, the TSI, especially now, might be a little more problematic.

While they agree with the goal of north-south connectivity, they are cautious – if not suspicious – of the political dimension.

V4 is the most important format to Slovakia, whereas the country treats the TSI more like a one time event.

For Slovaks, there is no political content in this grouping. And, beyond that, there is no security component and no political dimension for the country.

Czech foreign minister Lubomir Zaoralek has also expressed his reservations towards Poland, a country that, along with Hungary, emphasises the East-West divide. The radicalisation of some V4 members also does not help.

Poles automatically reject all ideas from the Western members, Zaoralek recently told Gazeta Wyborcza.

A member of the Czech ministry of foreign affairs, who was quoted in the same article, went even further, claiming that the idea of a Three Seas Initiative is unacceptable because of its 20th century neo-imperial origin.

Such criticism is dismissed by PISM analysts, who underline that despite any apparent differences, Slovakia and Czech Republic will send their representation.

Despite many reservations, the obvious champion of the initiative has become the Croatian president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic. Allegedly, her personal involvement was of key importance to the US delegation.

The TSI clearly goes along with her plans for her LNG terminal in Croatia that will improve gas supply diversification – independent of Russia – and increase energy cooperation in the region.

Needing a pat on the back

It might be too simplistic, but there is the chance that Trump is using the occasion as a slight against German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron.

Is this a not-too-subtle comment about how Trump sees future European cooperation?

The question needing to be answered by EU leaders will be whether they think Trump is willing to cut off his nose to spite his face.

That worries some, who do not believe that the Polish ministry of foreign affairs can handle a diplomatically sensitive visit.

Warsaw, already isolated in the EU, may want to be even more confrontational after Trump’s visit. This will also not help to reconcile with Brussels, Berlin or Paris.

Furthermore, it will not help to build regional solidarity, since the northern and southern neighbours of Poland will not feel like taking part in fist-fights that would complicate relations with their Western partners.

No matter how well-intentioned these leaders are in developing ties between their nations, they will all struggling with domestic and regional issues, as well as questionable popular support.

It all makes the meeting feel more like the international conference of future political pariahs.

The article was first published at EUobserver on June 26, 2017.

Wojciech Przybylski is the editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight, and chairman of the Res Publica Foundation in Warsaw. His new book ‘Understanding Central Europe’, co-edited with Marcin Moskalewicz, will be published by Routledge in the second half of 2017.

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