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Berlin takes a new approach to the Three Seas Initiative

Christoph Hasselbach | Rosalia Romaniec
June 5, 2019

Germany is begun to show support for the eastern European initiative. President Steinmeier is traveling to Ljubljana to meet with the group, as the region has come into the geopolitical focus of major powers.

Three Seas Initiative summit in Bucharest, 2018
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

The three bodies of water in question are the Baltic, the Adriatic and the Black seas. In 2015, Poland and Croatia called together the Three Seas Initiative, a loose group of 12 EU member states in the eastern sector of the bloc. It stretches from Estonia in the north, to Croatia in the south, and extends east to Romania and Bulgaria. What these countries have in common is that they are all members of the European Union, and all of them, with the exception of Austria, joined in 2004.

Their aim is to strengthen cooperation, especially in the areas of infrastructure, energy, and security. Members not only feel physically threatened by Russia — they also want to become more independent of it regarding their energy supply.

The 12 countries also feel that their concerns are getting short shrift in Brussels. Their relatively meager political weight has economic grounds: Despite the fact that the countries of the Three Seas Initiative make up roughly one-third of the EU's overall area and population, they only create about 10% of the bloc's GDP.

Thus, they reckon they can achieve more in Brussels if they act as one. Moreover, they endeavor to expand transport infrastructure between their countries, because, as Kai-Olaf Lang of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) says, "Unlike the EU's east-west axis, there is no north-south corridor." 

US President Donald Trump, Polish President Andrzej Duda, and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic (r. to l.)
At the 2017 Initiative meeting in Warsaw, Trump openly positioned himself against Germany on the issue of Nord Stream 2Image: picture-alliance/PAP/J. Turczyk

Conflict over Nord Stream 2

Initially, Berlin looked at the project with disinterest verging on distrust. The German government feared a further east-west split within the EU, one already precipitated by the acrimony accompanying discussions over immigration policy.

There have also been conflicts between Germany and the Three Seas states over energy policy, namely over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project designed to deliver Russian gas directly to Germany via a Baltic Sea pipeline.

When US President Donald Trump participated in the second meeting of the Three Seas Initiative, he openly positioned himself against Germany on the issue of Nord Stream 2. The president criticized Germany for making itself dependent on Moscow for its energy supply. That said, the US also has other motives on that front: Beyond its political concerns, the US sees eastern Europe as a potential market for its own liquified gas.

Read more: Can Poland break Gazprom's hold on Europe?

Germany needs more Russian gas

Germany wants in

Roderich Kiesewetter, foreign policy expert for Germany's Christian Democratic Union party, draws the following lesson from the conflict: "It was a clear sign that we should have spoken with our EU partners much earlier, not only from a national perspective, but also from an economic perspective. Unfortunately, we did not make use of the chance to curb mistrust."

The foreign policy expert says that the fight over Nord Stream 2 "clearly illustrated how important energy policy is for the cohesion of the EU. The east Europeans are very sensitive about this issue. Germany has to take it more seriously."

The incident set off other alarms as well. Meanwhile, Berlin has recognized that the US is not the only international player interested in the region for its geopolitical significance. China is ever more active in the region via its investment offensive, and Russia has been pursuing its interests there for decades.

Deutschland CDU-Politiker Roderich Kiesewetter in Berlin
Foreign policy expert Kiesewetter of Germany's ruling CDU: "We should have spoken with our EU partners much earlier"Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pilick

Now Germany wants to get off the sidelines and take advantage of its already strong economic ties to initiative member states. Lang says: "We don't want to be onlookers. We know that infrastructure projects also have a foreign policy component."

Berlin changes tack

Berlin began signaling a change of course last year, when Foreign Minister Heiko Maas attended the Three Seas Initiative summit in Bucharest. While there, he announced a "new eastern policy" — in reference to Chancellor Willy Brandt's policy of detente in the 1970s — saying that Germany wanted to be "a bridge builder and moderator in the spirit of European unity."

Maas even went so far as to propose German membership in the group. Reactions were mixed. Whereas the host, Romania's President Klaus Iohannis, supported the gesture, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki simply ignored it. Germany can only join the group if all of the initiative's current members vote in favor of expansion.

The EU is interested, too

Germany is signaling its increased respect for the initiative by sending President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to Ljubljana for the group's fourth summit. Now, the European Union is interested, too. Last year, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sat alongside Maas in Bucharest, and he has announced his intention to travel to this year's summit as well.  

Juncker's presence is a sign that the EU does not see the initiative as competition, but rather as an initiative within the bloc. Juncker has also voiced support for Germany's declared interest in joining the group. However, Lang believes: "Germany will likely not become a full-fledged member of the group, that would change its character." Nevertheless, Berlin wants to show its willingness to cooperate.

Read more: EU fears divisions as China woos Eastern European nations

Helping with an economic fund  

Thus far, the Three Seas Initiative has registered a rather humble list of achievements, says Lang. He says cooperation "has been vague, and little of consequence has happened." But a financial fund designed to boost infrastructure projects could change that. The fund was established at a Polish bank just days ago, and is to be administered by Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic. So far, the fund has a balance of around €500 million ($562 million), but the aim is to increase volume to between four and five billion euros.

Kai-Olaf Lang of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs
International and security expert Kai-Olaf Lang: "Infrastructure projects also have a foreign policy component"Image: SWP

Such an initiative existed once before, in the 1930s, led by Poland. It included numerous other countries between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas and was designed to protect against encroachments by the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin, as well as Germany under Adolf Hitler. Yet the members of the Three Seas Initiative say they are not interested in historical comparisons, and prefer to emphasize the economic importance of their cooperation.

The think tank's Lang, however, points out that "such initiatives have always had a geopolitical dimension to them." And Berlin has now recognized that fact, especially in light of increased Chinese and Russian interest. Lang's assessment: "That has sharpened awareness in the EU and Germany for the relevance of this part of Europe."     

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