The Three Seas Initiative is in the early stages and there are more questions than answers. But if it manages to deliver even a handful of projects, it should be a considerable success.
The Three Seas Initiative has become one of the focal points of Estonia’s foreign policy within the last couple of years. Tallinn will be hosting the Fifth Summit and Third Business Forum in the coming month of October.
Additionally, Estonia has put forward 20 million euros to the Three Seas Investment Fund, following State Secretary Mike Pompeo’s announcement of a US contribution with the size of one billion dollars at the Munich Security Conference, back in February 2020.
Initially, Estonia was a reluctant member of the initiative. The idea felt lofty and the US buy-in into the project limited. An additional layer of scepticism was added by the potential consequences the format may have to EU and its unity as then the arguments were running high that the initiative is in opposition to the EU.
A number of factors contribute to Estonia’s change of heart. Firstly, the active involvement of the US and President Trump’s personal buy-in are the primary motivations behind Estonia’s turn in policy as it provides the much sought-after political access to the Trump administration. Since the traditional channels of US foreign policymaking are in flux- decision making is concentrated in the White House and in the hands of personalities close to the President.
Hence, Estonia sees the need to move closer to Trump’s administration and the Three Seas Initiative has become one tool to solidify closer contact with the current administration.
Political winds have also changed in Tallinn. The current government that took the helm in March 2019 can be described as strongly pro-American and is investing political capital into strengthening relations with the US. The foreign minister has been especially active in pursuing closer relations with American colleagues.
Additionally, President Kersti Kaljulaid is investing her personal capital into promoting the format at various international stages such as the Munich Security Conference.
Estonia’s overall foreign policy is strongly influenced by the growing US-China rivalry and the changing role of the US. Irrespective of how one turns the Rubik’s cubic, the global lines of the binary choice between China and the US are becoming more vivid.
Thus, Estonia’s current jolt towards the US is its attempt to show its loyalty and support to Washington as the US is currently and continues to be an irreplaceable security partner in the region. For this reason, the political buy-in in Tallinn has been so immediate and robust.
The China-factor is becoming more relevant day by day. The official discourse does not make references to the Three Seas Initiative being a counter format to the China-led 17+1 format. However, it is hard not to see parallels as the aim and the membership of the formats are remarkably similar.
Estonia’s membership of the 17+1 format is becoming an increasingly contested issue and it is yet to be seen how the two formats will relate or oppose each other, whether some members of the 17+1 will leave the format and what is going to be its future.
The Three Seas Initiative is also a convenient way to diversify Estonia-US relations. The bilateral relation is heavy on security and military cooperation and the economic share is fairly small. Like any other country, Estonia looks for ways to increase foreign investments, however, the smallness of the country and its market sets its limits. Therefore, any opportunities to increase investments and grow the market are welcomed in Estonia.
An abstract idea into practical goals
All of this is happening against the backdrop of Estonia’s improving economic status. Estonia’s GDP reached 77 per cent of the EU average GDP in 2018, meaning its status changes from “less developed region” to “transition region”. This has an effect on the EU’s financing and investment rules whereby the co-financing rate increases drastically.
The jump from 15 per cent of the cost to 35 per cent is a challenge since, in case of large investment projects, the own contribution is going to be unsustainable for a small economy such as Estonia’s. This means that Estonia is looking for new sources of investments.
Therefore, the public argument of the Three Seas Initiative as brand development and an opportunity to grow the market size and thus attract external investments is not entirely hollow.
However, for the pragmatic Estonians, there are many questions in the air and the upcoming Summit’s aim is to turn the abstract idea into practical goals and outcomes. For Estonia, energy and digital infrastructure projects are most relevant and thus the central theme of the upcoming Summit is around digital infrastructure, literacy and technologies.
From the Nordic-Baltic region’s perspective, the question rises about the participation of the Nordic countries since the Baltic states’ economies are tightly linked to the Nordic economies. However, there is not much knowledge and interest for the Three Seas Initiative in the Nordic capitals, and it is currently difficult to assess if this is to change or not.
Another question in the air is the role of the European Union and the European Commission vis-à-vis the Three Seas Initiative. Estonia believes that the European Commission should be an active participant and thus hopes to see the President of the European Commission at the summit.
Another question that is in the air is the participation of Germany. Its change of policy last year has been welcomed in Estonia and President Steinmeier has confirmed his participation at the summit in October. How and what role will Germany and the EU play and how they will relate to the Initiative is still to be determined.
The potential of delivering projects
The Three Seas Initiative is in the early stages and there are more questions than answers. It is easy to pinpoint practical shortcomings and criticise the initiative, however, it comes in a time when regional cooperation has stalled. Cross-border regional projects tend to get slowed down by petty fighting between countries and inability to cooperate as the case of Rail Baltic has shown.
Therefore, if the Three Seas Initiative manages to deliver just a handful of projects, then this is a considerable success, which should not be dismissed.
Finally, the Three Seas Initiative is a minor test to US diplomacy as well. The power of the US to bring together countries and make them cooperate is still unrivalled on the global stage. In a time of shifting US foreign policy, it is to be seen if the “power of summoning” will survive and the US maintains its ability to forge partnerships with other countries and between them.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.