The upcoming seventh summit of the Three Seas Initiative is a perfect moment to identify key challenges currently facing this format of cooperation and the whole region and draft potential solutions for them. The solutions presented below will be discussed in greater detail in future papers.
Challenge #1: Less talking, more doing
The Three Seas Initiative has yet to concrete, measurable achievements. Today, most efforts are focused on creating a narrative about the region’s economic potential and the benefits that regional cooperation can bring. There is, of course, the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund, but it runs independently of the Initiative and has its own performance issues.
Without institutionalization of the Initiative, achieving ambitious goals may not be possible. American partners, in particular, point out the need to build a 3SI management center („secretariat”). Initially, it could be used to support the states presiding over the Initiative, store the 3SI knowledge and documents, and serve as investors’ first point of contact. Eventually, however, as the cooperation tightens, its competencies and staff should increase. They could, for example, include priority project management (similar to the model developed by the Baltic states for Rail Baltica). By establishing the 3SI „secretariat” in Brussels, the Initiative could gain better recognition and ensure more effective lobbying within the European Union.
Challenge #2: Empower smaller states
Both the Initiative and the Three Seas Fund are dominated today by Poland and its interests. This domination became particularly evident during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when the Three Seas’ Ukrainian agenda continued to be set in Warsaw, even though the 3SI’s presidency belonged to Latvia.
Of course, Poland’s pivotal role makes sense. After all, it is the founding state of the Initiative and the Fund and the largest state in the region in terms of population, territory, and economy. However, the Polish involvement in 3SI looks less and less like leadership and more and more like domination. Such an imbalance does not help to build the trust of our regional partners, ensure cross-party support for the Initiative, and gain recognition for this regional format.
To maintain the Three Seas-Ukrainian alliance, the Three Seas Initiative should become not only the main advocate of Ukraine’s EU accession but also a dependable guide through this process
Instead, Poland should focus on empowering the smaller states participating in the Initiative. One example of such an approach is the CEEplus index, established by seven regional stock exchanges and coordinated by the Warsaw Stock Exchange. The share of Polish companies in this index was deliberately limited to 50% to avoid their dominance resulting from operating in a much larger market. This way, the index ensures a better promotion of smaller markets and makes investments in the region more attractive to investors, as it spreads the investment risk over more markets.
Challenge #3: Extending cooperation beyond politics
Currently, the Three Seas Initiative takes place mainly on the political level, albeit extended from the mere presidential format. Cooperation on other levels and in other dimensions does not practically exist. This is risky because the Initiative does not enjoy cross-party support in many participating states, meaning that once the elections bring change in top leadership, we can expect states disengaging from the 3SI. We have already seen this happen in Croatia.
Moreover, close regional relationships cannot be built on politics alone. Academic, non-governmental, cultural, business, and tourist cooperation is necessary, if not crucial. Some steps to extend cooperation to new dimensions have already been taken, like Business Forum or the Civil Society Forum. However, we still lack a systematic approach to non-political partnerships and financial support for them. It is worth considering the creation of a Three Seas equivalent of the International Visegrad Fund and additional incentives to strengthen regional cooperation under existing EU programs such as Erasmus+ or Horizon. Ensuring that a much broader group benefits from the Initiative will make building cross-party support easier.
Challenge #4: Offering concrete support for Ukraine
The Three Seas states are leading supporters of Ukraine, and notably, this support was visible even before the start of the Russian invasion. However, there is no comprehensive, regional approach to cooperation with Ukraine. The activities carried out are dispersed and left to the discretion of individual Three Seas states or smaller, makeshift coalitions. While there is currently a lot of enthusiasm for helping Ukraine, enthusiasm alone is not a guarantee for good future relationships. We need to have it forged into a robust cooperation framework. Simply put, the humanitarian aid provided or shared cultural and historical base may not be enough to build a community of interests, especially when counterbalanced by investment funds from the wealthier EU states.
To maintain the Three Seas-Ukrainian alliance, the Three Seas Initiative should become not only the main advocate of Ukraine’s EU accession but also a dependable guide through this process. We are the best suited for this role because the memory of joining European structures is still very much alive in the Three Seas states, and the integration challenges that Ukraine will face are similar to ours. We can start supporting Ukraine in this endeavor right now by launching the Three Seas+ format. Within this format, we could share with Ukraine our best regulatory practices, implement cross-border infrastructure projects, and coordinate lobbying for Ukraine’s EU membership. Eventually, this format could be opened to other states aspiring to join the EU, particularly Moldova and the Western Balkans.
Challenge #5: Funding and validating Three Seas research
Currently the Three Seas is not the most popular research topic due to its political connotations and the lack of dedicated funding. The existing publications primarily focus on analyzing the Three Seas Initiative or exploring the region within the existing research areas (Central Europe, Balkans, Visegrad Group), which does not result in a comprehensive picture of the region. Consequently, we still know relatively little about regional synergies, and the term „Three Seas” lacks validation in the region and beyond.
Dedicated financing for research in this area will not only fill the knowledge gaps but also introduce the 3SI format to a bigger audience. It will also be a great opportunity for regional research institutions to gain global recognition and promote their expertise. This, in turn, will facilitate the creation of a scientific cooperation network between the Three Seas states and the implementation of cross-border projects. Close scientific cooperation within the region will provide a counterweight to the current center-periphery model of scientific collaboration, in which the center represents Western Europe.
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