From controversy to cornerstone: The Three Seas Initiative and European energy security in 20226 min read

 In Analysis, Caucasus, Central Europe, Politics
For seven years the Three Seas Initiative (3SI) has worked to develop infrastructure in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). With the recent decline of competing projects from both Russia and China, however, 3SI has found itself an increasingly key player in the region. In overcoming a past overshadowed by links to Poland’s populist Law and Justice party and the United States’ controversial Donald Trump, the 3SI has needed to legitimize itself towards the EU and the broader European community. After years of rather mediocre interest presented by most participating states, the 3SI can now gain much more attention and leverage. The annual summit in 2022, the first one since Russia’s invasion, promised to be a turning point for the initiative, and a new opportunity for the EU’s reforged energy strategy.

The 3SI was conceived to address a tangible gap in infrastructure running on the North-South axis within a corridor defined by three seas – the Baltic, the Adriatic, and the Black. In effect, this has defined the scope of the project to 12 EU member states across CEE and the Balkans. The project focuses on the development of three infrastructural pillars in the region: transportation, energy, and digital communication, which translate into such objectives as enhanced economic growth and resilience, greater connectivity, and energy security.

Despite the seemingly laudable goals, at first, the EU and key regional players, such as Germany, were hesitant to directly support the initiative. There were a number of concerns that precipitated this lukewarm attitude, some emerging directly from the initiative’s announcement in 2015 by Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) affiliated president Andrzej Duda.

PiS’s long desire for enhanced regional cooperation on energy and infrastructure was apparent already in 2015. This cast the project in many ways, as a nod to PiS’s internal political program, both upholding campaign promises and demonstrating a role in expanding Poland’s regional influence. At the same time, Law and Justice has plainly demonstrated its confrontational approach to relations with the EU. It raised concerns that the Three Seas Initiative would become a means of gaining leverage in negotiations, and sowing division within the Union.

Partly because the project was set outside the EU’s purview, many argued that it might easily invite outside influence into the region, in this case stronger transatlantic ties to the US. In 2017 this suspicion was founded as Donald Trump attended the 3SI’s second summit, which manifested strong and early support for the initiative from the US. This also accentuated the association of the 3SI to right-wing populist politics.

All these concerns did not ultimately stop the EU from engaging more closely with the project. With the project seeming a fait accompli, in 2018, Jean-Claude Juncker, then president of the European Commission, expressed support by attending the annual convention. This was a major step for the 3SI, although the future role of the initiative in the region would remain strained by competing interests.

Takeaways from 2022

Everything changed along with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. New realities have put the initiative back into the global spotlight. With the Kremlin upending energy supply lines and precipitating a revision of energy security strategy in Europe, can the 3SI grow to include Ukraine and other non-EU partners? Will the EU include the initiative as a trusted partner in their endeavors?

The annual 3SI Summit in Riga, Latvia, had the task of demonstrating the relevance of its objectives and projects within a newly emerging energy framework. The summit boasted attendance by presidents of its most member states as well as participation from the US, UK, Germany, and most notably from president Zelensky of Ukraine.

Not surprisingly, the issue of energy security took a leading position in the summit, which was envisaged in speeches made by President Andrzej Duda of Poland and the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. There are several positive developments in this regard. The Świnoujście liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal has already been expanded. On May 5th gas the interconnection between Poland and Lithuania (GIPL) was commissioned linking Poland to the Baltics and Finland. The Poland-Slovakia interconnection (gas) is operational. Finally, the highly significant Baltic Pipeline is due to become operational by the end of the year.

In addition to these achievements, the summit announced a new plan to effectively double its LNG import capacity in Croatia and opened discussion of expanding the initiative beyond the confines of the EU. To this end, the summit welcomed Ukraine into the role of “participating partner” in the 3SI. Though this fell short of full membership in the initiative, which is designed for only current EU members, it reaffirmed the support of the 3SI group for Ukrainian EU membership candidacy. While vital issues were clearly discussed, it remains to be seen whether this was enough to garner recognition and support.

Response and potential

Indicators of the Summit’s success appeared only weeks after its conclusion. In an address to the European Parliament on July 6th Kadri Simson, the European Commissioner for Energy, stated “The Three Seas Initiative is well aligned with the EU’s energy objective, and this political and economic cooperation can very usefully complement and give a substantial additional boost to the implementation of the REPowerEU plan.” Considering the scepticism with which the 3SI was initially received by the EU, this statement goes a long way in supporting the legitimacy of 3SI and integrating the initiative into the EU project.

Similarly, the initiative drew praise from US Secretary of State Blinken, stating that “Three Seas Member Countries are taking meaningful steps” with regard to regional energy security. This was followed up with a further investment of $300 million into the project. Finally, continued support from the US demonstrates that investment in the 3SI goes beyond unpredictable political divisions.

Despite this, the summit’s stance towards Ukraine and non-EU countries was hesitant and fell short of offering full membership to regional partners who now more than ever need the support of the wider European community. Yet with the EU fast-tracking Ukraine’s candidate status in June, it is likely that the 3SI’s policy will take a more ambitious stance on regional integration.

In conclusion, the summit came at a critical moment for Europe and the region, not only because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the contingent energy crisis but also because many key infrastructural projects are coming to completion this year, such as the Baltic Pipeline. This underlined the relevance and viability of the initiative and led to its recognition by key decision-makers. The potential integration of the 3SI into the REPowrEU would itself be a significant vote of confidence. Though challenges remain, looking at the national distribution of projects and participation, the 3SI appears to have demonstrated its value and is set to become a more significant actor on the European energy scene.

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