A Nudge in the Right Direction

Tackling the Diverging Interests in the Three Seas Initiative

15 January 2021

The Three Seas Initiative only has a chance to become a successful instrument, if it is used constructively in accordance with the EU as a forum and an opportunity to speed up processes. Manuel Sarrazin critically assesses the prospects of the initiative and the interests of the most important stakeholders and external players.


Based on a video-chat: Will Germany Invest in the Three Sea Initiative? Central European Perspectives, held on 16 December by Visegrad Insight. Guest speaker: Manuel Sarrazin – a German Politician of Alliance 90/The Greens.

Since 2008, Manuel Sarrazin has been a member of the German Parliament, the Bundestag. He is a member of the Green Party.

Sarrazin is also a member of the Committee on European Affairs and the Committee on Foreign Affairs. He is the parliamentary spokesperson on Eastern Europe and the Deputy Chairman of the Polish-German parliamentary group.

Moreover, Sarrazin is the President of the Southeast Europe Association and a board member of the Institute for European Politics.

Visegrad Insight: Together with the German Marshall Fund, Visegrad Insight has developed future scenarios for Central and Eastern Europe. Those are about how the region will develop socially, politically and economically in the coming years. The question is: will the Three Seas Initiative (3SI) play a crucial role in this?

Manuel Sarrazin: Let me put it undiplomatically: no.

Why not? Can you elaborate?

Manuel Sarrazin

The decisive factors for the region are different, the 3SI is not among them: The success of the EU, of NATO and the Russian strategy of influence, are far more critical than the 3SI for Central and Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans.

Specifically, it is about the future of the EU expansion policy, the resilience of NATO, especially on the Eastern flank. In Central Europe, things depend on the EU’s cohesion, a possible breakup of the Union or a division of the EU into a so-called two-speed Europe.

I do not see how the 3SI could positively impact these issues, but it is conceivable that it strengthens or weakens organisations. But it will not be more than a nudge in a direction already taken thanks to other factors.

The Three Seas Initiative now consists exclusively of EU Member States. Could these twelve states take on an assisting role in or for the EU? Would that be the “nudge”, as you said, in dealing with the problems you mentioned?

I do think that a constructive actors’ constellation is possible with the 3SI. It would be desirable if the group agreed on common positions before decisions are made in Brussels to speed up processes.

However, if the 3SI is used in a powerful fashion, it can also be destructive. It would be a danger if it would formulate policy decisions independently and consequently against the EU. In my opinion, however, there is no 3SI member, who would attach importance to the initiative that diminishes or outshines the commitment in other organisations.

In short: For the countries of the Western Balkans, the enlargement policy is more important than the 3SI, NATO is vital for Poland and the Baltic States.

Poland is the main driving force behind the initiative and at the same time, its largest member. Warsaw, however, has been a destructive force in the EU for years. The Polish government has been criticised for its destruction of the judiciary. Together with Hungary, Warsaw threatened to veto the budget, upsetting all other EU Member States. Is there a risk that Viktor Orbán and the Polish party Law and Justice (PiS) will hijack the Three Seas Initiative and turn it into a vehicle for their interests against the EU?

I do not think that the 3SI is Orbán’s preferred vehicle to strengthen his position. He is too clever for that; he already has better instruments and opportunities to gain influence, especially in the Western Balkans and in the immediate vicinity of Hungary, for example with the help of the Hungarian minorities in the border regions. To some, he is a role model in the region, in Serbia, Macedonia, Slovenia or Croatia.

With that in mind, Orbán is more likely to try to paw a hardcore wing in the European People’s Party (EPP) than to play a game in the 3SI. That in turn does not fit in with the cooperation with PiS, which is not in the EPP. Orbán is, therefore, smarter and more practical than the Polish government.

In addition, he deliberately plays with China and Russia and thus openly against Poland, whose security interests are directed against Moscow.

And what about Poland’s ambitions?

Poland by no means automatically takes on a leading role in the 3SI, just because it is the largest and most potent country in the group. The question is whether Warsaw will manage to suppress its tendency towards hegemony according to the traditional interpretation of trojmorze (i.e. the three seas) so much that the Czechs or the Slovaks will not run away.

The willingness of the smaller countries to submit to Poland is little or nonexistent. There is little confidence in Warsaw. The more openly Poland shows ambitions, the faster the Baltic or Balkan countries will also say goodbye. They are all too strongly oriented towards Germany.

Incidentally, Poland and Hungary do not trust each other as much as both countries stage their partnership. Just look at their different attitudes towards Russia: while Orbán welcomes Russian influence, Poland has always been the loudest critic and warner of an assertive Russia.

Does that mean that the Three Seas Initiative is doomed to fail?

The 3SI will not become a consensus machine. Its members sometimes have diverging interests and are already heavily involved in other organisations that they expect more from. Again, the fact that the 3SI even exists is by no means a reason to cheer for Poland. The initiative only has a chance to become a powerful instrument of Polish foreign policy, if Warsaw uses it constructively in accordance with the EU as a forum and voting opportunity.

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A forum integrated into EU decision-making would be opposed to a regional, hegemonic claim. Is it already apparent, which path Warsaw will take with the Three Seas Initiative?

The 3SI has not yet served Poland as an instrument for creating foreign policy outcomes. All I see is that the government in Warsaw uses the very existence of the initiative to gain political prestige.

Hungary, which with Orbán has a certain impact on authoritarians and national conservatives in the region, has not yet brought any noteworthy input to the 3SI. Budapest seems to prefer more and more China or Russia.

You mentioned it: Many of the 3SI members are looking towards Berlin. Germany is bilaterally the most important trading partner for them, and politically the decisive factor. But now Germany is not a member of the 3SI. Keeping that in mind, what does Germany mean for the group, what does the group mean for Germany?

At first there was indeed a concern in Germany that the 3SI was an attempt to divide the EU and to stir up scepticism towards Germany in the region. Nevertheless, German observers and decision-makers quickly realised that it would not help anybody if Berlin refused the 3SI.

Germany has to get involved positively and to show its partners goodwill; it needs to offer cooperation with the format – and that is happening now.

This attitude is surprising; after all, you analysed the 3SI critically at the beginning. So can the initiative also be an opportunity for Germany?

Indeed, by showing willingness to be involved, offering support, expressing benevolence, Germany can now commit to Central and Eastern Europe, and perhaps even begin to see itself more strongly as a Central European country.

The 3SI is certainly an opportunity for Germany to emphasise its traditional role as an advocate for smaller EU Member States. That has fallen behind in the past ten years, especially in the wake of Angela Merkel’s rampant intergovernmentalism in fighting the euro crisis.

However, it is useful when partners work together and ensure that political positions are coherent. Under these circumstances, of course, Germany wants to cooperate more closely with the region and is thus taking on a decidedly different role than France.

What do you have in mind? What is France’s approach? 

In Paris, intergovernmental and ‘core Europe’ concepts still dominate. Besides, Macron likes to present himself as a counter-image to Central and Eastern European national conservatives or populists to score domestic political points in France.

By the way, Orbán likes that very much, because he, too, can score himself domestically by claiming Hungary is under attack by a big EU Member State.

In the long run, everyone will lose in this game, because it undermines cohesion in the EU. The German-Polish, the German-Hungarian, the German-Czech friendship and Germany’s engagement in the Western Balkans are decisive for the security of the continent and the EU’s stability in the coming years.

That is why Germany cannot play just a supporting role and must positively influence what is happening in the region. In this sense, 3SI can be an opportunity for Berlin.

That sounds nice, but not very specific. 

Yes, Germany is not pursuing any strategic goals concerning the 3SI. But that does not mean that the initiative has to contradict German politics. I see the potential of the 3SI in the fact that it can be a forum, in which partners can coordinate in advance.

For Germany, there is a chance to create positive confusion in Warsaw or Budapest through engagement, not membership, but benevolence, interest and communication. Rejection would be a mistake.

Conversely, does the Three Seas Initiative have the potential to take positions vis-à-vis Berlin?

I have already indicated that, but this point is crucial: Germany is the most important trading partner for almost every country in the region, and Germany is almost everywhere the largest donor of foreign direct investment. In most of the 3SI countries, the German economy has the reputation of being crisis-proof and reliable. It also goes hand in hand with a promise of transformation.

Simultaneously, many economic players in Germany are aware that their own economic success of the past decades would never have been possible without the region, Central Eastern Europe and Southeast Europe. The expansion of the internal market to include the region is one of the main reasons for the German economy’s success and prosperity. Politically, however, the region has lost its importance in Berlin and in the German public.

It would therefore be good if the countries in the region used the 3SI to highlight their relevance in Berlin. Twelve countries are simply more impressive than four or two.

What is the position of the United States, also an important player in the region? At least symbolically, Donald Trump showed his support for the initiative by attending the Three Seas Initiative summit in Warsaw in 2017.

The United States is partly a competitor for Germany in the region. I do not see that negatively, because politically, the US can definitely make a positive contribution. Before Trump, the old US policy in the region relied on a reform agenda and greater integration into the EU.

Hopefully, the United States under Joe Biden would pursue such a policy with a view to the 3SI. US investments in the region would have to be assessed individually. There are certainly competing projects. But I’m happy about that because competition ultimately stimulates business.

Now, there are two other important players for the region: Russia and, increasingly, China.

In short, Russia wants to divide and rule. Moscow is not making a constructive offer to the region. It is supporting radical forces that can have a destabilising effect. This way, Russia is quite successful in the Western Balkans. The 3SI can certainly be a consolidating instrument against destructive Russian influence. But if the initiative is brought against the EU and its institutions, it will play into Moscow’s hands.

The Russians probably think of other instruments, when they try to expand their influence in the region. China relies on its own format, namely 17+1, which does not only consist of EU Member States. It is thought to be more integrated; perhaps this is an advantage over the 3SI.

China does not play the same destabilising role as Russia. Still, as an increasingly aggressive global power, we must carefully monitor Chinese engagement in Central and Eastern Europe as well as Southeastern Europe.



Philipp Fritz

Philipp Fritz is a foreign correspondent for German WELT and WELT AM SONNTAG based in Warsaw. He reports from Central Eastern Europe, first and foremost from Poland, but also from Ukraine, the Baltic countries and the Czech Republic. Before Philipp started reporting for WELT he worked for different German media companies, his texts were published amongst others in Die Zeit, Tageszeitung, Berliner Zeitung or Frankfurter Rundschau. (Photo Credit: Grayson Lauffenburger)


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