During a visit to Warsaw on Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump will meet with regional leaders at a summit of the Three Seas Initiative — an effort to improve trade, infrastructure and energy links among the 12 nations between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic Seas.
Trump's presence will put a spotlight on the nascent project and could facilitate a prominent role for American businesses in modernizing a region still catching up economically with the West. Below is a primer on the Three Seas Initiative:
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WHAT IS IT?
The initiative is made up of a dozen countries, all of them members of the European Union and all but one former communist countries whose economies and infrastructure are still developing. Together, they form a market of 105 million people with a combined economy larger than Brazil's, making the region attractive for private investors.
The cooperation project was launched by Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic in partnership with Polish President Andrzej Duda. The 12 nations that signed on last year are: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Some of the signatories are now taking a cautious approach, fearing the initiative could further divide a weakened EU.
WHY IS THE PLAN NEEDED?
Most of the region's critical infrastructure, including roads and rail services, run on an east-west corridor partly due to Germany's economic dominance. Germany has relied on the links to move its goods into the large Three Seas market. The project aims to develop more and better connections along a north-south axis in the areas of energy, transportation and digital communications "to complete the single European market."
EUROPEAN ENERGY SECURITY
Another key goal of Three Seas is to promote greater energy independence from Moscow, which has sometimes wielded its gas and oil as a political tool over a swath of central and eastern Europe. Poland recently received its first shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States at Swinoujscie, a port on the Baltic coast. The Three Seas plan offers potential for future gas deliveries from the port to Croatia and other countries south of Poland. Such an arrangement could fit well with the Trump administration's push to export American gas supplies.
ECONOMY OR POLITICS?
The initiative's backers insist it is intended purely as an economic device and would not evolve into a new geopolitical structure that could divide Europe or challenge established alliances.
"You have to have bad will to try to depict this as something that would tear Europe apart," said Bartosz Wisniewski, head of the research office at the Polish Institute of International Affairs. "It would bring the region closer to the old EU. It's about cohesion, not disintegration."
There still are concerns in Slovakia, Hungary and elsewhere that Poland's euroskeptic government could use the cooperation project as a political tool to carve out more influence in Central and Eastern Europe. Trump's attendance at Thursday's summit heightens worries that the initiative could prove divisive, said Agnieszka Lada, an expert on German and European affairs at the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw.
The presidents of the Czech Republic and Austria are skipping the summit, a sign they are taking a wait-and-see approach. Germany, which doesn't belong to the initiative, supports it in theory, but shares concerns about a possible political dimension.
"They are worried because they don't want to have any divisions in the European Union," Lada said.
The Three Seas idea is a modern incarnation of a proposal that gained currency in Poland before World War II called the Miedzymorze (Between the Seas), known elsewhere as the Intermarium. Pursued by the interwar Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski, the plan was to create a confederation under Polish leadership that would unite against Russia in the region spanning from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. It never came to fruition, in part due to conflicting national interests.