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Three Seas Talks – Tomáš Strážay, PhD, Research Center of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association

Stefan: We’re here for the Institute of New Europe in a series of discussions with experts from the 12 Three Seas states. Today I’m speaking with Dr Tomáš Strážay from Slovakia.

Tomáš maybe we could start with a little introduction about yourself, your work and the think tank that you work for.

Tomáš: Yes I’m heading Slovak Foreign Policy Association which is the oldest foreign policy think tank in Slovakia. My personal focus is on the EU enlargement, regional cooperation and bilateral relations of Slovakia with the neighboring countries.

Stefan: And of course amongst that area of expertise I’m hoping that you’ll be able to illuminate us about the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). The focus of the conversations that we’re having is around the current state of economic affairs and cooperation in the region. Could you roughly highlight the current state of economic cooperation between Slovakia and other Three Seas countries? Where are the closest economic ties?

I’m assuming that obviously Slovakia’s ties are closest with Czechia. But if you could tell us a little bit more about that regional cooperation from the Slovak perspective? Where Slovak interest lies, its exports, imports? Just to give an overview of the current situation. That’d be very useful.

Tomáš: Well, I am not an economist, I’m an expert on foreign policy, so I can provide you with the expertise mainly from that angle. But definitely I can say that after Germany, which is by far the most important trade partner for Slovakia and one of the most important investors, our trade has developed quite rapidly with the other three uh so-called Visegrad countries, which are also part of the Three Seas Initiative, and the fourth neighbor  – Austria, which also somehow counts as a member of the 3SI and is also an important trade partner for Slovakia. So all in all, I would say that our neighbors, who are part of the 3SI, do play an important role in our economy, our exports, trade and also in our investments. Exactly, Germany and the three V4 countries are the most important trade partners.

Stefan: Germany is one of these countries that really does play an overwhelmingly huge role in the region, especially in the trade balance. It is interesting as well that you mentioned Austria. When Central and Eastern Europe is discussed Austria is very often bypassed; it is a slightly forgotten and a sort of overlooked member of the Three Seas. Maybe it’s because it’s a little bit different from the other 11 countries in many ways. I don’t know if you agree with that analysis, that point of view.

Tomáš: Definitely. It is a country that is not “in the same room” as the other 3SI countries. Austria joined the European Union back in 1995, which makes it the oldest EU member among all Three Seas Initiative countries. I don’t like to divide EU members in two groups – old and new members – but if we’ve done so, then Austria would definitely belong to the group of these old member countries.

There are also some other specifics that can be noticed. Together with Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Austria is a country that perhaps is not showing a huge enthusiasm when it comes to the development of cooperation within the Three Seas Initiative format. There are different reasons for that.

Stefan: The Three Seas Initiative has been going on for few years. In 2015 the concept was created, in 2016 it was launched. We are now a few years in. There are few huge infrastructure projects that are under way. There’s the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund (3SIIF). We are still in the obviously very early stage of the project. It is still unknown to the broader public, it is mostly a topic for experts, analysts and the political class. What are the current major opportunities for the format? Or conversely, what are the major challenges ahead of us?

Tomáš: I would agree that the cooperation, the format itself, is still in the making. It has achieved already some interesting achievements. With regard to its main focus which is to support and enhance cooperation of those countries in the Eastern part of the EU, I would say that it definitely makes sense to support this initiative. As it makes sense to support other initiatives, that have been here longer than the Three Seas Initiative itself.

Some of the projects that are now considered and promoted as the Three Seas Initiative projects, started many years ago. Infrastructure projects like Via Carpathia should not be exclusively connected to the Three Seas Initiative. Neither, the projects that enhance the energy cooperation, like interconnectors. Still it is very good that the Three Seas has such an important sectoral focus, that it is an initiative that aims to deepen cooperation among the countries of the Initiative. I consider it as an important and, at the same time additional, instrument for regional cooperation in broadly understood Central and South-Eastern Europe.

Stefan: And what are some of the major challenges that lie ahead of making it a reality? What is standing in a way?

Tomáš: I think that we are still in the process of finding appropriate projects. The number of projects should be bigger. More projects should be available and actively looking for financing. I also think that one of the challenges is not having adequate number of private investors willing to invest in the 3SIIF. There are still some countries, namely Austria, Czech Republic and Slovakia, which haven’t contributed to the Fund.

These are the challenges that we need to tackle. I would also say that what might need more focus on good communication, to avoid any misunderstandings related to the 3SI goals and to make sure that each participating state feels like a valuable contributor to the Initiative. So some challenges are there, but all of them are easy to be dealt with.

Stefan: As you said, Slovakia has not joined the 3SIIF. Why is that? What could be done to convince them to join the Fund?

Tomáš: Despite the fact that the minimal expected contribution is quite modest, it EUR 20 m, there are still some voices in Slovakia that say that before investing in the Fund, certain kinds of guarantees should be made. Namely, guarantees that Slovak projects would receive funding from the Fund. Currently there is no guarantee that the funds will be distributed based on the contributions. The main intention is to finance the best projects, the most prospective projects, regardless of their country of origin.

I think it is also a matter of communication. Slovakia has submitted to the Fund the list of potential projects that could be considered for financing from the 3SIIF, but there has been certain lack of communication when it comes to the Fund management. So there are some issues that need to be solved, but as I said I don’t think that these are too big to overcome.

Stefan: How do you think the current geopolitical situation, obviously I am referring to Russian invasion of Ukraine, has shifted the Slovak approach toward the cooperation with the region? Obviously the Visegrad Group format has suddenly become a little bit trickier for obvious reasons, but has the attitudes towards the Three Seas shifted as well?

Tomáš: Those who focus on the 3SI in Slovakia would prefer to keep the sectoral orientation of the Three Seas, which is very much preferred in Slovakia, away from any political connotations or context. This obviously doesn’t mean that there is lack of the support for more intensive cooperation with Ukraine.

Slovakia is 100% for Ukraine. But I think that we still in the Three Seas format have to look for the best ways to engage Ukraine in the cooperation and figure out how to make it benefit from the cooperation, either as a full member, an observer or in any other form. Generally I have to say that in Slovakia the Three Seas Initiative is not actually considered to be an important topic. Neither in public, nor in political discourse, which also contributes to the overall understanding of the Initiative and its goals.

Stefan: That is very interesting. What is the attitude of the Slovakia towards Poland’s role in this project? Is there any concern that this an overly Polish-led initiative? That it overly represent Polish interest, for example?

Tomáš: I have to say that our diplomacy and the government consider Poland to be very important partner. The break out of the Russian aggression actually brought Poland closer to us in many regards. I don’t think that there is a conviction that the Initiative is dominated by Poland. Those stakeholders, and there are very few of them in Slovakia, who deal with the 3SI on a regular basis, would admit that definitely Poland and Croatia were the forefathers of the Initiative and there is no need to change that.

But the question is how to make the cooperation really efficient and effective for all states participating in it. I think this question still remains without an appropriate answer, which might also be due to the fact that it is still a work in progress.

Stefan: I see, that is actually very interesting answer. It’s been very interesting to see how different the approaches to the topic are depending of which country I am speaking to. The levels of enthusiasm were very different. Maybe because Slovakia is part of V4 and it is such a close neighbor of Poland, I was sort of expecting more enthusiasm towards it from Slovakia. So it is very interesting to hear that [it is not the case].

I suppose this really takes me to the next step… What sort of concreate steps could be taken to convince Slovakia that this is a good initiative?

Tomáš: Just one comment regarding the previous answer. By no means I wanted to tell that Slovakia is opposing the Three Seas Initiative. We might be still a little bit hesitant, because we want some issues clarified first. I also like to add, that I am not speaking on behalf of the government, I am an analyst so this is also my personal view.

When it comes to very concrete proposals, from Slovakia’s perspective, it would be definitely good to focus 100% on sectoral cooperation, not on institutional arrangement so much.

Stefan: Could you explain that “sectoral rather than institutional” approach?

Tomáš: Yes, by sectoral I mean the three dimensions, three pillars on which the 3SI has been built since the very beginning: the digitization, energy and transport. These are very important for any country, including Slovakia. This importance is the reason why we would prefer to focus more on the intensification of ties and cooperation in these particular fields. And to focus on the projects, concrete projects in these fields.

Why are we not so enthusiastic, so convinced that the institutional framework, like the secretariat, should be build first and then the cooperation would become more efficient? We are rather opting for a more flexible character of the Initiative, as it would bring more tangible results. As for now, we have had attempts to build the secretariat; we also have the forum of the 3SI regions, we have the business forum and annual summits. These are important platforms for discussion and deepening of the cooperation, but still the core meaning of the 3SI is in the sectors that have been identified very wisely. That’s the standpoint we have.

Stefan: I see. That is very interesting. Of course, I did not want to imply that you were opposed in any way to the Initiative. It was more in a general sense. I think there is this Polish national character, a deep romanticism to the Poles, that makes us quite enthusiastic about things. I am certainly enthusiastic about this idea, even though I am aware that it’s obviously in a very early stage. Of course, from the purely practical perspective, the Fund itself, which is meant to Fund all the projects, has now officially less than EUR 1 bn in it. The combined cost of the projects we would like to have completed is estimated to be in excess of EUR 600 bn. We are a long way from being able to actually fund all the things that we have in mind.

Tomáš: That is true. One thing that needs to be mentioned is that most of the 3SI countries, in fact all of them except of Austria, are the beneficiaries of the EU funds. We are lucky to be in this position for the moment, but this position might change in near future, so we need new sources of funding. In this regard, I really see the role for the 3SI and 3SIIF. When the EU funding and the external sources would stop then it would be good to have an instrument to finance the regional projects and to develop them further. I think this is one of the significance of the Three Seas Initiative. This message should be clearly communicated in the countries that are perhaps labeled as “not so huge enthusiasts” when it comes to 3SI.

Stefan: That is also a very interesting way of looking at it as a useful vehicle, as an instrument needed for the future. I want to ask you, sort of leaning into your area of expertise, not necessarily in the context of the Three Seas, but the whole region of Central and Eastern Europe…. Obviously it is a difficult question… I am trying to phrase it in the right way…

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia obviously is a great tragedy. Central and Eastern Europe, as the NATO’s eastern flank and the EU’s eastern border, has been at the forefront of the humanitarian aid, weapon deliveries and refugees hosting. How has this conflict changed the region? What are the sort of opportunities? Obviously this word in the context of Ukraine’s tragedy is a very unfortunate word. But I think you understand the gist of the question.

Tomáš: Definitely, we are the closest neighbors of Ukraine, together with the Baltic states and Romania, so there is a natural link with Ukraine. It is quite natural that we support the Ukrainian fight against Russian aggression in many ways. I don’t like to introduce any rankings in this regard, which would turn it into some sort of a beauty contest, rather than a serious analysis. But it really needs to be said that the countries of the Eastern flank really do their best to support Ukraine, with some small exceptions.

I think this brought us closer to each other, because we face the same challenges, the same threats. We are very close to the frontline. That is why the Bucharest Nine, which includes the countries of the Eastern Flank of NATO has become significantly more important than it was perhaps two or three years ago. It also showed that the significance of this part of Europe, was perhaps undervalued by some of the old EU members. This also needs to be taken into the consideration. But I think what is really needed regarding Ukraine is common EU approach. In this regard, we should do our best in order to contribute as much as we can to the European voice and European instruments that can bring Ukraine closer to our side.

Stefan: There is a common complaint from the new EU members that their voices are not necessarily heard to the same extent as the old EU’s. There is certainly an argument to be made that the European Union is strongly dominated by France and Germany, even if only by virtue of size of their economies, their population and the size of their countries. They are much larger countries than ours. Do you think that there is a case to be made that over the last few months that Central-European voices have been heard louder in Brussels? Especially with the statements like Ursula von der Leyen saying “we should have listened to the Baltics, to Poland, to people who know Russia.” Finnish prime minister recently echoed a similar statement in Strasbourg. Is there a case to be made that indeed our voices are finally being heard to a greater extent?

Tomáš: I would say yes, there are some areas in which our voice is now louder. When it comes to the appeals on sanctions imposed on Russian, then definitely these voices originated in our region. When it comes to more intense military support to Ukraine, obviously Poland is playing the leading role. But even the smaller neighbors of Poland from the Eastern flank do the same. Also when it comes to accepting Ukraine as a candidate country to the EU, the idea originated again in this region. We also provided a lot of support for Ukraine when drafting of the EU candidacy documents. The documents that Ursula von der Leyen received were really developed here, in the countries of the region. This is a very clear example that our voice is louder now. Perhaps it should be even louder.

On the other hand I am against any attempts to make this issue of not being heard in the EU a political issue and misuse it in a populist way. Because we need discussions about the joint European approach and voices of all countries are needed. We can’t do that alone here in the Central Europe, we need partners from other EU member states. So that is why I am underlining so much and once again the need for common European approach.

Stefan: Of course, it is very important to keep Europe united, rather than disjointed, especially at the time of crisis like this when he have a war at our Eastern border, looming energy crisis and potentially a recession around the corner. If anything, now it is the time for unity.

Thank you for that final part. It was very nice to see you get a little more enthusiastic. I think, don’t know if I am correct, that I heard some satisfaction when you were saying that our voices are getting louder. Which is very nice to see and really wonderful to hear. Thank you so much for your time and we’ll be in touch. Thank you so much again.

Tomáš: Thank you so much for the invitation and let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Stefan: Wonderful, thank you.