The three-seas-initiative: European regionalism of supranational nature

By Francis Masson | 20 March 2018

To quote this document: Francis Masson, “The three-seas-initiative: European regionalism of supranational nature”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 20 March 2018,, displayed on 02 June 2023

Regionalism is not always the desire for greater independence. At the supranational level inside the European Union, it is about finding partners that share common interests or face similar challenges. While a multi-speed European is now finally in the pipe, some regional groups of interest have become topics for heated discussions.

Since their arrival to power in October 2015, Polish leading politicians have been tirelessly trying to build close collaborations with their neighbours. By doing so, they want to counterbalance the “old Europe’s” influence in Brussels (loosely speaking, “old Europe” refers to the pre-2004 EU-members minus Great Britain). Since 2015, the “Three Seas Initiative” has been a topic for discussion and has gained an international visibility with Donald Trump’ visit in Warsaw in July 2017. 

Comments on this project of regional cooperation are often misleading because the Three Seas Initiative is usually described in the light of what is perceived as its ideological roots: Intermarium, a project of regional integration of Central Eastern Europe dating from the interwar period. I was myself misled in my article from last August for Nouvelle Europe (in French). The confusion with the Intermarium project has many reasons, but can be understood from the perspective of an external observer as the results of the multi-layered Polish foreign policy since 2015 (a search for various alliances at regional, European and international levels). Let us first clarify what we are talking about before trying to understand the stakes underlying this project. 

Three Seas Initiative: a limited framework for regional cooperation?

Shortly speaking, the Three Seas Initiative is a project of regional cooperation between twelve countries located between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas (see the picture below by the Polish Institute of International Affairs). The cooperation is not unconditional and all-encompassing. On the contrary, it is focussed on economic matters, notably on energy, transportation and digital communication. It was officially launched by the 2016 Declaration of Dubrovnik (Croatia).

Back then, the Croatian president Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic assured that the cooperation “would benefit not only these twelve EU country members but the whole European Union”. The whole region, which suffers from structural weakness in terms of economic development, will need 50 billion Euros of investment to develop in the coming year. The declaration of 2016 is a political framework based on which concrete projects will be designed to help Central and Eastern European countries catch up on their European partners. Still, the cooperation is informal, based only on a “declaration” which means that it is not legally binding for the signatory parties.

The Three Seas Initiative is not Intermarium, don’t get confused!

The term Intermarium refers to a geopolitical concept developed by interwar polish leader Józef Piłsudski. After the division of the Russian empire in the wake of the First World War (1919), Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus were newly formed independent nation-based states. Piłsudski believed that an alliance of those four states in a federative body would safeguard their respective sovereignties. The concept was extended to Hungary, Italy, Yugoslavia and Romania in the later 1930’s by the Polish minister for foreign affairs Józef Beck. For both Piłsudski and Beck, the federal entity would be located at the core of the 16th- and 17th-century Europe political entity of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and would be marked by a Polish leadership. 

The scope of the Intermarium varied depending on the time and place of its formulation, sometimes stretching from the Scandinavian countries up to the Balkans. The concept survived in the Polish and Central Eastern European political thinking during the communist time thanks to elites in exile. At the same time, the keyword Intermarium remained censored in Central and Eastern Europe during the post-war era. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the concept did not rise up because the geopolitical offer toward which the region strived was the EU and NATO integration. 

Intermarium today: a rather pessimist view of European integration?

Still, since the new millennium and the turnaround of Russian foreign policy toward the EU, the Intermarium concept regained visibility in the Polish foreign policy narrative and was clearly promoted by Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s President from 2005-2010. This was visible in its attempt to diversify energy suppliers as part of his energy security strategy that aimed at cooperating with Azeri producers and later with Kazakh energy elites. After the former President’s death in the Smolensk plane crash, Intermarium faded away from Polish presidential foreign policy. Since then, Intermarium was more a slogan for right-wing politicians, presented as a better alternative than European integration to contain the “Russian threat”. 

But in November 2015, the Polish President Andrzej Duda (member of the PiS party ruled by Jarosław Kaczynski) referred indirectly to it during a visit in Bucharest. He expressed his will to pursue the plan drafted by President Kaczynski. He wants to expand NATO bases in Central and Eastern Europe and hoped to see the countries of this region speak with one voice. Krzysztof Szczerski, chief of Cabinet of the Polish president and advisor for international affairs, also put the two concepts in direct connection on his book The European Utopia published last year. Nowadays, as explained by Ostap Kushnir, the term Intermanirum is loosely used in the public debate to describe “any interstate formation which has a hypothetic chance to emerge in the space between Baltic and black see”. This is one of the reasons for the “geopolitical confusion” between Trimanirum and Intermarium. 

Other reasons come from the fact that existing cooperation in the regions echoes parts of the Intermarium project of Piłsudski. A Lithuanian–Polish–Ukrainian Brigade was created for peacekeeping in 2009 by a trilateral agreement and eventually formed in 2014 (it has not yet been deployed). Para-militarists groups in Ukraine and in Poland seem to consider the creation of this brigade as the premise of the realisation of the historical project of Intermarium as a replacement of a failed European Union unable to prevent the downfall of a European continent assaulted by Russia and “Islamizing” forces. For those groups: “The future of European nations lies in Intermarium as a geopolitical alternative!”


Snapshot of a video circulating on the Ukrainian YouTube praising the completion of the Intermarium project. A promotor of the project in Poland in the online-portal

Moreover, a forum of former presidents of Poland, Ukraine, Moldova and the Baltic States, held in Kaunas (Lithuanian) on March 9-10 2017, revealed the common mistrust regarding NATO in the light of the common security interest of Eastern European State. Vytautas Landsbergis, first leader of independent Lithuania said that “The revanchism of the old Russian empire is insurmountable”, while former Polish President Lech Walesa spoke of the need for the integration of Intermarium countries.

To sum up, Intermarium is an historical project of regional integration, while the Three Seas Initiative is a project of regional cooperation. The geopolitical confusion between Trimarium and Intermarium lies in the fact that the same question is raised by both projects: Is Poland looking to become the leader of the region and where lie its own national interests in this proposal? Or as many commentaries already put it, is the Three Seas Initiative part of an Intermarium that does not yet say its name?

Three Seas Initiative: a Polish geopolitical move recalling the interwar claims to lead Central and Eastern Europe?

According to official documents, the Three Seas Initiative aims at increasing Central European cooperation in the fields of energy security, infrastructural development, communication and transportation. The regions and the whole continent need more North-South connection to achieve the completion of the internal market that had been so far connecting the continent along an East-West axe. However, the Polish conciliating narrative on the project, having in background opened anti-German and anti-EU rhetoric, failed to convince Czech and Slovak policymakers. The tone of Polish national politics explains why international commentators accuse the Three Seas Initiative to be a step toward more Central Eastern European leadership claims.

The Warsaw summit of July 2017 was the second meeting comprising the Heads of States of the Three Seas Initiative. It was highly mediatized because it took place in the background of the visit of the Donald Trump in Poland. The president of the USA was invited to join the leaders, which has been perceived by many western commentators as an expression of privileged relation between Warsaw and Washington. All this had in background the Brexit-negotiations and the revival of the Franco-German tandem planning further steps of European integration.

Many speculations have been formulated on the Polish intensions behind this framework for regional cooperation. The lack of consistency of observers has played a role in the conceptual chaos we mentioned above. However, the cooperation must also be assessed in the light of its concrete implementation. Is the Three Seas Initiative delivering anything concrete?

The meaning of the Three Seas Initiative for the region: possibilities and limits

Online, it is easier to find editorialist papers arguing on the revival of the historical Polish Intermarium geopolitical agenda. It is more difficult, however, to identify the deliverables of the initiative. However, one must acknowledge that the cooperation is still young and that it takes time to deliver, even more so when the main purpose of a project is to trigger the development of common infrastructures. Indeed, infrastructures (in communication, transport or energy) are so called “capital intensive” goods. It requires a long decision-making process and implementation periods before a road, a bridge, or a high-voltage line or a pipeline is build. Don’t expect them to bloom within couples of years. What can Three Seas Initiative means for its members, and what difficulties it will surely encounter?

The Foundation Institute for Eastern Studies, known for organizing the yearly Economic Forum in Krynica, organized a round of conferences in 2017 entitled "Adriatic – Baltic – Black Sea. Visions of Cooperation”. In Tallin, Robert Filipczak, Polish Ambassador to Estonia, said the Trimarium is meant to “boost the economy and support the EU”. Przemysław Żurawski Vel Grajewski, the then Adviser to the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, added that the main aim is to build some tangible infrastructures. For example, Estonians political interests lie in digitisation and cyber security, but at the same time, they are working very hard now on connecting the Baltic states to the rest of Europe, notably to move the energy security of three states away from Russia and towards the EU. When it comes to security, official assure that the cooperation in the framework of this initiative is solely about energy security and digital security, not about military security. 

So what is delivered? One key word comes out of the talks between experts and stake-holders: Via Carpathia. The Latin expression refers to a flagship infrastructure project intended to link the Central and Eastern European countries on the North South axes. Via Carpathia is meant to become a transnational highway linking Klaipėda in Lithuania with Thessaloniki in Greece (see map below). The project is in the pipes since the 2006 Declaration of Łańcuc. Since then, the project is still in a conceptual phase, while the number of participating states has steadily increased. Trimarium is hence logically the ideal framework to welcome its realization that is planned until 2050.


Source: Polish Ministry of Infrastructure and Construction

Interconnection is a real need for the region. This has been one structural weakness of the regions that has been addressed for years by the European regional funds (see for examples the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region and the EU Strategy for the Danube Region). However, the use made of these funds failed to deliver the expected outcomes. Structural weaknesses are very visible in the energy security of the region. Almost all participating countries are heavily dependent on Russian natural gas and oil. Still, solidarity of supply between the countries is not possible because their national networks are not interconnected. Therefore, the most important challenge of the Three Sea Initiative should be to create a regional energy network allowing to diversity energy suppliers to the region (following the logic of the synchronisation of the three Baltic States' electricity grid with the continental European network). 

Learning from previous failed schemes of intra-European cooperation

There have been many regional groups, oriented around more or less narrow interests within the EU and with a more or less integrated structure of cooperation, an old example being the Benelux, originally an economic union in the post-war time. Other keywords in the regions are the groupings of GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova), the BSEC (Organisation of Black Sea Economic Cooperation) and the Visegrad Group.

The Visegrad group (V4) gathered since 1991 four Central Eastern European countries: Poland, Czechia, Slovakia and Hungary. They chose to cooperate around their EU and NATO integration projects as well as their shared development challenges in transforming their post-communist economies. It is notable that the V4 delivered in the culture and youth exchanges, notably via co-funded projects. However, it failed to integrate the economies of the four countries to make them less unilaterally interdependent form the Germany market. Moreover, no political unity exists among the countries in Brussels. The V4 countries align unregularly and incompletely on each single dossier. For example, none of the country supported Poland in voting out Donald Tusk as president of the European Council in March 2017. Not even Viktor Orbán, in opposition to what he had announced.

The Weimar Triangle (France, Germany, and Poland) is also often tagged as a failed cooperation scheme. It managed to deliver its first objectives: facilitate German-Polish reconciliation and the integration of Poland in the transatlantic structures. But since 2004, it failed masterfully to be a new motor for the deepening of EU integration or even to be a platform for the three countries to consult each other’s in a constructive way to facilitated negotiations in the European Council. This trilateral cooperation framework is so loose that it has proven unable to survive the burst of national politics of its members. In light with the mitigated results of the Visegrad group and the Weimar Triangle, what hopes do we have for the Trimarium, an opened cooperation framework between twelve countries that shall not compete with the EU’s doing? 

The failure of previous intra-European cooperation frameworks to deliver long term results stems, in my view, from the lack of concretely defined quantifiable deliverables. Without undermining the actors’ contributions to the long term understanding of their respective societies, cooperation such as the Weimar Triangle and the Visegrad groups are nowadays tagged as inefficient because the expectations linked to those regional groups were disproportionate to the tools they were provided with. At least, the Three Seas Initiative is clearly defined as a tool to foster the Nord-South interconnection of Central Eastern Europe. It has a sectorial limitation. To be efficient, it requires tangible tools such as a budget and dedicated manpower within ministries to ensure a coordination of the cooperation. We shall see what the next meeting of Trimarium in Romania will deliver. Eventually, the effort Polish leaders will invest in making this initiative work on the long term will tell us more about the geopolitical rational behind it.

This leads us to the following consideration: Even at a supranational level, are those regional cooperation schemes not also the expression of a fight for more independence from a centralized authority? In the answer to this question lies the red line between complementarity and competition with Brussels. Increased independence does not erase the interdependence of living on a shared territory. Hence, intra-European cooperation mechanisms need to be complementary to the Union (in complete line with the logic of subsidiarity) in order to be meaningful at all. To be viable, initiatives such as the Three Seas Initiative should represent a complementary intermediate level between Brussels and the national level. 



Primary sources: 

•Joint statement on the three seas initiative, Dubrovnik, 25 August 2016

•“Intermarum z perspektywy ukraińskiej (WIDEO)”,, 9 September 2016 

•“Deutschlandfunk: Intermarium zamiast Unii Europejskiej?”,, 17 October 2016

•Sejm Information System, Highway from Rzeszów to Budapest - Via Carpathia under construction, 26 june 2017

•Ruslan Szoszyn, “Kaunas talks on the Intermarium alliance”, Rzeczpospolita 20.03.2017


•Ksenia Szelachowska, “The revival of Intermarium – Poland can talk the talk but can it walk the walk?” Stratfor, 14 January 2016.

In July 2017, the Lazarski University in Warsaw hosted an international academic conference entitled “The Intermarium in the 21st Century: Visions, Architectures, Feasibilities”. The findings of this conference (published by New Eastern Europe) helped us to understand the confusion between the Three Seas Initiative and Intermarium.

•Intermarium in the 21st century, New Eastern Europe, 5 July 2017

See articles from: 

•Daria Nałęcz Intermarium vs the Three Seas Initiative

•Ostap Kushnir, Why great national ideas end up on the backstage of regional politics

•Dariusz Góra-Szopiński, Trimarium is not Intermarium

•Jonathan Hibberd, Warsaw debates Intermarium

•Jan Menzer, Intermarium – A view from Germany

•Michał Kuź, Sovietisation and post-Soviet development in the Intermarium

Sur notre site : 

•Francis Masson, “Macron, Merkel, Szydło (et Trump) : aperçu de la géographie mouvante des alliances européennes”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], 9 August 2017.

•Francis Masson, “Le Triangle de Weimar (1/2), un réflexe politique qui n'a rien d'anodin”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], 11 April 2016

•Francis Masson, “Le Triangle de Weimar (2/2)  : le versant sociétal des relations franco-germano-polonaises”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], 1 May 2016

•Marine Michault, “Le groupe de Visegrad a-t-il encore une utilité?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Jeudi 9 novembre 2006

•Marine Michault, “L'or noir en mer Noire : un nouveau Grand Jeu ?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Dimanche 4 mai 2008.

Pictures credits : 

Three Seas Summit, Warsaw, Poland (Poland’s President Office, Public domain)

Szczerski: Trilateral project - developmental, attractive, positive, gospodarkamorska, 04/07/2017,Offshore/szczerski:-projekt-troj...