The 2023 Bucharest Summit: Stepping up the security dimension of the Three Seas Initiative in the context of the war in Ukraine

Strategic Insight 024/2023

Dr. Laurențiu-Mihai Ștefan

31 August 2023

The 2023 Bucharest Summit: Stepping up the security dimension of the Three Seas Initiative in the context of the war in Ukraine

Few people recall a meeting of four presidents and other high-level officials from twelve states from Central and Eastern Europe (namely Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia) on 29 September 2015 on the margins of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Presidents of Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland and Romania were keynote speakers in a brainstorming exercise on how to increase cooperation among countries located in a region bordered by the Baltic, Black and Adriatic Seas. This was the first – rather informal – meeting of what would soon become known as “The Three Seas Initiative” (3SI) to promote cooperation for the development of infrastructure in the energy, transportation and digital sectors from North to South in Central and Eastern Europe.

Triggers for the Three Seas Initiative

The agenda was inspired by the recommendations of an Atlantic Council report called “Completing Europe. From the North-South Corridor to Energy, Transportation and Telecommunications Union”, which had been published one year earlier by the U.S. think tank. The report drew attention to the urgent need for increased connectivity and cooperation on a North-South axis in Central Europe. With the exception of Austria, all the other eleven countries were part of the Soviet bloc. Caught behind the Iron Curtain, these countries lost many opportunities for development under the Soviet grip. Despite rapid economic growth and major investments after these countries joined the EU, the gap with the rest of Europe remains significant to this day. Moreover, compared to Western Europe, when it comes to roads, railways, gas and oil pipelines or electricity grids, the connectivity between these countries is relatively poor.

It was no coincidence that the report was released months after the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. There was a joint understanding by U.S. experts and political leaders in Central and Eastern Europe that Russia remains a threat and countries, especially from its vicinity, should prepare accordingly. Both the strategic and transatlantic dimensions have been present in the foundation of the “Three Seas Initiative” since its inception.

Growing fast in scope and ambitions

The discussion in New York in 2015 was followed the next year by the first summit of what started to be officially called “The Three Seas Initiative”. Croatia hosted its very first summit in Dubrovnik in 2016. The second summit organised by Poland in Warsaw in 2017 was attended by then-U.S. President, Donald Trump – evidence of the strong transatlantic link between the United States and the countries of the 3SI region.

Then it was the turn of my country, Romania, to host the third reunion of the heads of the 3SI member states. The 2018 Bucharest Summit was a milestone in the development of this regional format of cooperation. The first edition of the Business Forum was organised on this occasion and a Letter of Intent was signed by some 3SI participating states to mark their commitment to establish a Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund (3SIIF). It was also in Bucharest that the leaders of the 3SI participating states decided to welcome the 3SI short list of priority interconnection projects in the fields of energy, digital and transportation. No less than 48 projects were submitted in Bucharest and this number grew to 91 in 2022. In 2018, we also welcomed the involvement, support and interest of the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany. European Commission President, Jean-Claude Junker, attended the Summit – a clear indication of the synergies between EU and 3SI objectives. Currently, the EU, the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany are strategic partners of the 3SI.

Slovenia hosted the fourth Summit, the last before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019. Estonia focused on digital during the virtual Summit held in 2020, and it was also instrumental in consolidating the 3SIIF as the main financial instrument for the 3SI connectivity projects. The fund was established one year earlier when one Polish and one Romanian bank signed the founding act of the 3SIIF. Estonia joined the 3SIIF in 2020, followed by six other countries. The sixth Summit and the third Business Forum took place in Sofia, Bulgaria, while the seventh was hosted by Latvia in June 2022 – three months after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. It was during this Summit that Ukraine was invited as a special guest and as a partner to the 3SI, thus starting the beginning of the process of participating in the 3SI.

On 6th September this year, Romania will be the first 3SI country to host the Summit for the second time.

The Three Seas Initiative – economic and strategic dimensions

The economic objectives of the 3SI should not obscure its major strategic importance.

Beginning mainly as a political platform, the Three Seas Initiative has taken a very pragmatic twist over the years, focusing increasingly on the objective of securing funding for joint transnational projects in the areas of transportation (road and rail projects, rolling stock, ports and airports), energy (renewable and gas generation, LNG, pipelines, distribution networks) and digitalisation (telecommunication networks and towers, and data centers). Business-to-Business and Business-to-Government relations have been encouraged since the first Business Forum in 2018. The Three Seas Investment Fund which was operationalised in 2020 has, at exceptional speed, invested almost all of its funds (close to one billion Euro by 2023). It is hoped that private funds would top national contributions to match the very large costs of the major 3SI projects. The 91 projects that have been shortlisted gross an estimated value of 168.4 billion Euro.

Two major transport infrastructure projects are particularly noteworthy. The first – “Via Carpatia” – is the project of the north-south highway linking the Lithuanian port city of Klaipeda in the North with the Greek city of Thessaloniki in the South and the Black Sea Romanian port of Constanta in the South-East. The second project – “Rail-2-Sea” – aims to construct and upgrade the railway line that will connect the Polish port of Gdansk with the Romanian port of Constanta. This latter project could also provide operational support for a modern (5G) digital network. The dual (civilian and military) use of these critical infrastructure projects is even more salient after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

Stronger and more competitive economies, better connected via roads, railways, pipelines, and data networks, will increase the strategic resilience of each of these states and of the region as a whole.

As former Croatian President, Grabar-Kitarović, mentioned during the Bucharest Summit in 2018, the initiative should endeavour to “make Central Europe the backbone of European resilience”. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this task is more urgent than ever, not least because many 3SI countries – from North to South, from the Baltic countries and Poland to Romania and Bulgaria – have been threatened economically, politically and militarily by Russia.

From this perspective, the transatlantic anchor is – again – critical. The U.S. has not only provided strong political support to the 3SI, almost from the beginning, but it has also pledged a contribution of 300 million USD to the 3SIIF. The decision of the Riga Summit in 2022 to invite Ukraine to begin the process of participating in the 3SI as a partner was also of major strategic importance.

The 2023 Bucharest Summit – The road ahead

Romania is one of the most enthusiastic participating states in the Three Seas Initiative. It is the only state so far to host, for the second time, the 3SI Summit. The 8th edition of the 3SI Summit will take place in Bucharest on 6 September 2023. In the words of Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, this is a decisive moment “for reconfirming the 3SI as a political platform for facilitating strategic infrastructure interconnection projects and investments in the region”, while responding “to the need of defining the relationship with a geopolitically reconfigured neighborhood under the impact of the brutal war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine”.

The leaders of the 12 3SI member states gathering in Bucharest in early September have the difficult mission of giving even more substance, consistency and strategic relevance to this regional format. Romania is up to the task and it is ready to drive the discussions forward. Romania plans to consolidate the 3SI role as first and foremost a political platform that would generate political will and guidance for the implementation of the critical 3SI projects. It will also seek to consolidate the role of the Business Forum as a hub of new ideas and partnerships – including with like-minded countries like the United Kingdom or Japan, or with international organisations such as the OECD. Of key importance to Romania is to see the 3SI opening its doors to the Republic of Moldova, as it did last year with Ukraine. Extending the connectivity projects to the Initiative’s neighbouring states would have a long-term impact on the prosperity and security of Eastern Europe and implicitly of the entire European Union.

To conclude, on account of the brutal war at the borders of some 3SI participating states, with Russia and Belarus becoming more aggressive and threatening, the strategic dimension of the Three Seas Initiative is becoming more and more visible. It is clearly becoming a useful and valuable platform to increase resilience through economic development and more connectivity in critical areas such as transportation, energy and digital.

Dr. Laurentiu-Mihai Stefan is Ambassador of Romania to Ireland since August 2021. He previously served as senior adviser to Romanian President, Klaus Iohannis. A political scientist by background, he published extensively on coalition politics and selection of political elites in his home country of Romania.

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