5 July 2021
In the last six years, Central European (CE) countries have initiated an unprecedented format that would aim at bettering connectivity in the European Union and increasing the investment potential of the whole block. They formed a joint investment fund and have regularly met to push for common development policies. This builds upon the ambitions of CE to reinforce Transatlantic cooperation while extending the idea of a secure and free Europe.
The Three Seas Initiative (3SI) of 12 EU member states — all located in the east of Europe in between the Adriatic, Baltic and Black seas — is a political format to stimulate sectoral and business cooperation with key allies from the Western world and international investors. A private fund is tasked with investing by means of private-public partnerships in the 3SI transnational projects. Transportation, energy and digital infrastructure are the sole priorities, and the fund is quickly growing with national contributions reaching 1 billion euros in 2021 to be matched by additional 1 billion US dollars pledged by the U.S. adding to the already the most ambitious EU 7-year perspective budget ever. For the 3SI to be successful, the above-mentioned funds are merely seed money for large institutional investors from around the globe who are keen to invest in emerging markets.
While reinforcing transnational cooperation between democratic allies, several countries of the 3SI are — at the same time — being challenged by resurgent nationalism, democratic backsliding and geopolitical threats ranging from hybrid warfare and the sharp power influence of China to state terrorism and military conflicts sponsored by Russia and other revisionist powers. All of these obstacles undermine the ambitious cooperation and investment format. Democratic security should therefore be considered as yet another priority to make the 3SI achieve its lofty aspirations.
In order to build up the region and attract investment, a secure civil society actively participating in governance, as well as strong, independent media, are required. These two institutions would assert the societies’ control over their future and act as a bulwark against corruption.
In February 2021, the 3SI was endorsed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and, over the last year, by several bi-partisan acts in both chambers of the US Congress.
The previous support from Donald Trump’s administration for the 3SI was received with reservation in the EU. The former president’s divisive diplomacy along with strong Eurosceptic voices in CE overshadowed the bright prospects of the initiative. Both political currents have distorted the perception of the 3SI and stamped out its initial momentum.
It was not until the Bucharest summit in 2018, three years after its launch, that the EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas finally endorsed the initiative. The envisaged funds were pledged by member governments only in 2020 at just the same time when the EU was dealing with the protracted 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework negotiations.
Today, the 3SI is projected to be the fastest-growing part of the EU’s economy. Along with unprecedented resources allocated through the Recovery and Resilience Fund, it has the potential of changing the narrative of the whole European block from the idea of postwar responsibility to future investment and growth.
With rising security challenges and illiberal political trends, Central Europe remains a source of concern among its democratic partners. Europe’s future is tied to the region, which should not be neglected as this would be exploited by revisionist powers such as China or Russia.
At the same time, a strategic direction for the region has often been hampered by the complexity and diversity of Central Europe.
Against this background, a few regional initiatives have been successful in coordinating joint efforts from the capitals as the Visegrad Group (V4) and, more recently, the 3SI.
In our previous report, Central European Futures — released in 2018 jointly with the German Marshall Fund of the US — we explored scenarios for the region expressed in the dynamics of the V4, which continue to map political developments by means of plausible alternatives.
The current foresight report presents the potential development of the 3SI with four alternatives lit against the prism of democratic security. The report was based on our in-house research, several years of analysis in the field and dozens of interactive workshops conducted in 2020 and 2021, which involved a unique group of 60 regional experts from all 3SI countries. A draft report has also been consulted with key stakeholder groups at an international research conference held in June 2021 involving policymakers, diplomats and civil society influencers.
While the 3SI can build on the economic advantages of the EU members, which over the last two decades have demonstrated robust growth, it started off in the shadow of nationalist narratives that exploited themes of rivalry between members of the Western Alliance.
The pragmatic perspective should focus on the growth of the EU’s economy and securing Europe’s weak points, especially in the domain of connectivity, gas supplies and uneven digital potential. Those objectives are at the core of the initiative. They may yet bring more returns in terms of Europe’s security depending on political and diplomatic efforts by all engaged parties while limiting damage to the Western Alliance from malign authoritarian influence.
Hence, in our recommendations, we strongly emphasise the democratic security perspective on investment transparency, the integrity of electoral institutions, media freedoms and civil society participation in governance.
The Visegrad Insight team has developed the following report with scenarios and actionable policy recommendations to advise the political debate on the 3SI and advance core democratic principles.
The International National Endowment for Democracy has supported this report. It does not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of NED.