Dismissing the Three Seas Initiative is counter-productive for Brussels

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

The 12 presidential aides of the Three Seas regional cooperation initiative take part in a meeting in Nowa Wies. Poland, 4 May. [Rafal Guz/EPA]

The Three Seas Initiative is viewed with suspicion in Brussels due to its political implications. The best thing the EU can do to make it a success and counter anti-EU rhetoric in Central and Eastern Europe is by embracing this project, writes Łukasz Janulewicz.

Łukasz Janulewicz is a Research Fellow at the Centre for European Neighbourhood Studies at Central European University.

Disruptive or constructive? This question has been accompanying the launch of the Three Seas Initiative (TSI), spearheaded by the Presidents of Poland and Croatia. On paper it is primarily a regional initiative to improve North-South infrastructure links in Central and Eastern Europe, but concerns about its political implications linger. With the upcoming TSI summit in Warsaw and President Trump in attendance, it is time for the EU to embrace the project instead of eying it with suspicion from a distance. Dismissing or belittling it is counter-productive and will just play into the hands of those who want to use ‘Brussels’ as a bogeyman that tries to hold Central and Eastern European nations back.

Choosing the label of TSI has, inevitably, sparked a debate in Poland of whether this is a 21st century revival of the old Intermarium idea of a Polish lead bloc in Central and Eastern Europe as a power centre between Germany and Russia. As far too much brain power and paper is still wasted in Poland on this anachronistic concept let’s make it short: no it is not.

This has not stopped concerns about the nature of the project emerging in the region itself, as well as in Brussels, where it is reportedly perceived as an attempt to undermine European unity. While countries in the region need to make their individual cost-benefit analyses about TSI, Brussels cannot allow itself to dismiss the project, despite the ambiguity about Warsaw’s intentions.

Polish promoters of the TSI have at least taken the risk of giving the wrong impression. One cannot help but think that it was a risk taken deliberately to pander to a domestic audience for whom such ‘maritime’ metaphors will invoke the image of Polish grandeur and regional leadership. The debate that ensued in Poland shows that this iconography remains an effective Pavlovian bell in Polish public discourse. However, it is highly unlikely that the TSI will develop into any sort of separatist anti-EU bloc. Even within the narrower Visegrad group, Czechs and Slovaks regularly break ranks because there are no ranks in Visegrad. Neither will they exist in the even more diverse TSI. Other TSI participants like the Baltic States are equally unlikely to allow TSI to evolve into any sort of anti-EU vehicle. Just consider the strongly positive message by Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid for the country’s EU presidency.

The same goes for the visit of President Trump. Above all it is aimed at those parts of the Polish electorate that are suspicious of the intentions and reliability of Western European partners and that cherish the idea of a Polish-American special relationship. How much tangible US support the Trump visit will actually result in remains to be seen, but keeping the US administration engaged in the affairs of Central and Eastern Europe is a value in itself. However, the gloating by Poland’s de-facto leader Jaroslaw Kaczyski over the weekend raises concerns about how Poland will take it from there. Therefore, the EU needs to embrace the project and promote it as a positive signal of cooperation between EU member states, even though it takes place outside any formal or informal EU framework.

This will require a change of attitude in Brussels. Negative and dismissive rhetoric from Brussels or member state capitals will be counter-productive and just play into the domestic Polish rhetoric about the EU or Berlin trying to hold Poland and the CEE region back.

Ironically, TSI’s promoters have declared that the initiative is contrary to the idea of multi-speed Europe. The argument goes that TSI will close the developmental gap and counter-act a permanent division between the rich centre and the poorer periphery within the EU. However, here the same people that complain about others muddling up Intermarium and TSI themselves confuse ‘two-speed’ and ‘multi-speed’ Europe. Quite to the contrary, TSI can be seen as the embodiment of the principle ‘Those who want more do more’. It falls outside formal EU structures, so is not strictly speaking part of multi-speed Europe, but it clearly is an initiative of several member states coming together to collaborate more intensely on matters of mutual interest. Brussels should not grumble about separatism, but be happy that its newer member states try to take matters in their own hands. It’s a sign of growing up.