The role of Croatia in the Three Seas Initiative

The Three Seas Initiative (TSI) – also known as Baltic, Adriatic, Black Sea Initiative (BABS) – embodies a forum of twelve EU states that stretches from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic and Black Seas aimed at creating a regional dialogue and cooperation among its members. To some extent, the TSI finds a foundational inspiration in the interwar Polish project of the Intermarium (Międzymorze). Historically, the concept of the Intermarium, which literally means “the land between the seas”, represents one of the most significant geopolitical theorizations related to the European continental and maritime space. In geographic terms, the historical Intermarium included the territory that lay between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic Seas, although in some interpretations extended as far as the Aegean Sea. In recent years, the contemporary initiative has been strongly advocated by Croatia and Poland. Although Poland bears the most influential position within the initiative, the crucial role of Croatia in the creation of the TSI should not be underestimated. After its official launch, the aim of the project has been to guarantee international cooperation while simultaneously supporting the independence and territorial integrity of states in the context of a progressive integration within the Euro-Atlantic community. While officially conceived as a forum to foster international cooperation, the TSI also envisions a multifaceted model for cooperation to create stronger bonds among regional partners. In 2016, Dubrovnik hosted the first official summit of the initiative, during which it was officially called TSI. The summit ended with a joint declaration of the twelve participating countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria) that confirmed the intention to promote a close cooperation in the fields of energy, transport, digital communication, and economy. Since 2016, new summits have taken place on an annual basis. However, since 2022, that is, since the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, the geopolitical aspect of the initiative has been prioritized in order to develop practical linkages to reinforce the overall resilience of the region and strengthen transatlantic links.

Member states of the Three Seas Initiative (TSI). Credits: Three Seas one opportunity

As anticipated, the former Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović was one of the launchers of the TSI, hosting its first official summit in Dubrovnik. During the summit, President Grabar-Kitarović explained her vision of the initiative as an informal political forum where Central-European countries could pursue the objective of reinforcing European ties and economic cooperation by building transport and energy infrastructure and generating digital technologies. Later, Croatia confirmed its support for the initiative through the decision to back the creation of the Three Seas Initiative Investment fund. Zagreb’s position clearly exemplifies the overall enthusiasm of Croatia for the initiative. However, the change of political leadership in Croatia partially changed the Croatian perspectives on the project. While former President Grabar-Kitarović was an outspoken enthusiast of the initiative, the new Croatian President Zoran Milanović has manifested a more skeptical standpoint, at the point of arguing that the initiative could somewhat harm Croatia’s external relations especially with Berlin and Moscow. Still, since its accession to NATO (2009) and to the EU (2013), Croatia has pursued a foreign policy that has been consistent in building stronger European and trans-Atlantic ties. The country’s adoption of the euro as national currency starting from January 2023 further describes the profound predilection for European integration.

From the Croatian perspective, while reinforcing the relations between the US and the EU, the TSI could bear a special role for countering three geopolitical perceived menaces, that is, Russia, China, and Serbia. First, in relation to Russia, although Zagreb never officially declared it as an objective, the initiative is supposed to reinforce Croatia’s visibility in the Western Balkan region also by attracting the interest of the US to replace Moscow as key energy provider. In this sense, albeit unofficially, the initiative should promote Croatia’s independence from Russian gas. For instance, investments in a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal on the island of Krk near Rijeka are regarded as practical tools to realize such ambitions. Precisely, the floating LNG terminal is located in Omišalj municipality on the island of Krk and bears a geopolitical and geo-strategic dimension in the context of strengthening the European energy market and increasing the security of gas supply to EU and especially Central and Southeast European countries that want to secure a new gas supply route. The terminal, which includes a Floating Storage Regasification Unit (FSRU) vessel and an onshore section, has been included in the list of EU Projects of Common Interest (PCI), has been awarded a grant of € 101.4 million, and enjoys a technical capacity of the 2.9 billion cubic meters per year. Moreover, not only could the TSI potentially address energy security and dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, but also strengthen dual-use infrastructure for the forward collective defense of NATO. Russia’s 2022 military intervention in Ukraine has, on one hand, re-emphasized the need for energy security in Central-Eastern Europe and the Balkans and, on the other, added Ukraine as a partner nation of the TSI especially in the frame of future reconstruction projects.

The Krk Liquefied natural gas terminal. Credits: International gas union

Secondly, Croatia believes that strengthening its relations with the US in the frame of the TSI represents a valuable chance also to curb Chinese influence in the Central-Eastern European and Mediterranean regions. However, the initiative by the Chinese ministry of Foreign Affairs to promote business and investment relations between China and countries of Central-Eastern Europe known as China-CEE seems to overlap in a constructive manner with the basic directions of the TSI, especially in relation to transportation and digitization. Still, within the framework of China-CEE, Beijing is primarily fostering its own strategic plans, including the implementation of the terrestrial and maritime routes of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Also, EU countries have become increasingly worried about security issues related to infrastructure, such as the Chinese deployment of 5G networks. The question would then be whether the TSI would offer the US and Europe an alternative engagement model to the Chinese BRI in Central Europe and to Beijing’s cooperative development frameworks with Central-Eastern European countries. If this is the case, it seems that the finances promised by the US and the EU for the realization of the projects connected to the TSI are insufficient and could be easily surpassed by the Chinese funds in the future. Clearly, it is still to be seen whether countries that receive Chinese financing will be able to meet European standards, especially when it comes to transparency and environmental management.

Three Seas summit, Sofia 2021. Credits:

Finally, the interest in supporting the TSI could also conceal a hegemonic ambition, namely Zagreb’s will to become the hegemonic country in the Western Balkans and the main actor in the eastern section of the Adriatic Sea, while acknowledging Italy as the main in the western one. This ill-concealed ambition requires the need to replace Serbia as key actor of the Western Balkans. Croatia still faces important challenges with some neighbouring countries, and especially Serbia. In this sense, Croatia is aware that the TSI may be perceived by Serbia – a country that does not belong to it – as a tool to strengthen Croatian liaisons with Euro-Atlantic institutions in an anti-Serbian fashion. In this sense, Croatia could be using the TSI – including its economic and connectivity strategies – as a platform to pursue regional. Implicitly, this behaviour could manifest Zagreb’s intention to counter pro-Russian Serbia while increasing its relative power in the Western Balkans.

Today, the TSI still raises several questions both in relation to its nature and to its objectives. First, it is not entirely clear what this group of states represents, as they differ in language, traditions, and history, and are united only by sharing a territory that stretches between three seas. Second, from an institutional point of view, the initiative does not seem to promote significant forms of political-economic integration that go beyond the annual summits. Generally, these meetings epitomize mere discussion forums that result in non-binding statements often grounded on wishful thinking. Also, the reason for the creation of a grouping of countries that already belong to the largest family of the EU and that, except for Austria, are full-fledged NATO members remains ambiguous. However, as seen, Croatia’s active participation in the TSI may imply a geopolitical three-fold strategy aimed at counterbalancing the influence of Moscow, Beijing and Belgrade in the Adriatic and Western Balkan region, while reinforcing US and NATO interests in the area.

Paolo Pizzolo