Azimuth, Romania Towards global relevance through regional cooperation. And a follow-up to the 2023 Three Seas Initiative summit
The political-economic phrase “regional cooperation mechanisms” is dry enough that it brings in tow a serene attitude, which neither Romania’s voluptuous imaginaries, nor its immanent vicinities seem to pan out. Central and Eastern Europe, extruding towards the South East – the softly symbolic geographical notion which includes Romania –, has always possessed a lively geopolitical tectonic, prone to extremely brutal outbursts and worldmaking shifts (i.e., featuring as some hotspot for the two world wars), and a latent geoeconomic magnetism too (i.e., due to its fine resource pools and in spite of its dire infrastructures). These traits have remained somehow unchanged for centuries, only to be recurrently re-evaluated.
After 1989, afforded a mind/will of its own, most of the “East” chose the path of Euro-Atlantic westernization, though not without frictions; neighbouring nations also reassessed each other (after their coerced cohabitations since medieval empires all the way to the communist bloc), bringing forth, once again, regional tensions. Left (or stuck) behind, regions of this “East” were faced with a re-questioning of their own sovereignty, integrity, inalienability and indivisibility: vitiated maps and vicious chronicles were brought to light by revengeful and revisionist ambitions. For instance, Russia denied Ukraine’s very existence and attacked it. And such “negational pandemic” seems to insidiously disturb the very EU and NATO frontiers as well.
East’s West or West’s East?
Three decades ago, the countries in the region effected a “drang nach Westen” that nevertheless placed little emphasis on cooperation between them, other than each country’s relations to its immediate neighbours. The results were quite interesting in a structural sense – a 2015 report from the Atlantic Council said that Eastern Europe lacks a North-South corridor in everything from transport and energy to ideas and money, after decades of development across an East-West axis that is both natural and distorting. One of the results has been that the NATO’s so-called Eastern Flank is anything but traversable, with military mobility from North to South being extremely slow. So much so, that NATO was, until recently, content to place “tripwire forces” in the region that would deter attack rather than substantial forces, for fear of tying them down if an attack should call elsewhere, with Germany remaining the “turntable” of NATO forces from West to East after decades of growth to the East and accumulation on the Cold War border. This report, unlike many other studies of learned men shouted into the ether, was not left without an echo. And this echo was strong enough to feed many paranoid politicians in Brussels, Berlin and elsewhere about US influence in Eastern Europe.
Soon enough, in 2016, Romania became a founding member of the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), one of the most ambitious regional integration initiatives, alongside Poland and Croatia, following the Bucharest 9 (B9) establishment, a year before. The three seas in question are the Baltic, the Black and the Adriatic, and this space has produced more history than any other in the past two centuries, but is also today the site of great economic, technological, cultural and, invariably,… geopolitical ferment. And North-South infrastructure connections in transport, energy and digital/cyber, piously intoning a purely economic agenda while winking at the obvious security implications, are at the forefront of 3SI thinking.
Romania’s cooperating strategies, irrespective of their denominations and criteria – be it the merely geoeconomic 3SI, the overtly geopolitical B9 or any other one –, involve various shaping factors: interdependency (as a reaction to dependency and exploitation, superior to any impoverishing and isolated “independence”), external pressure (filtering genuine internal priorities from the confusing populist noise) and common identity (marked by enough shared values, stronger than any divisive narratives). Moreover, it boasts terms such as like-mindedness, friendshoring, trustworthiness. Yet, so hard to deliver within a region historically labelled Europe’s or world’s “soft underbelly”/“powder keg”.
The Market for Ideas (TMFI) has talked about the 3SI before, in 2018 and in 2022, on the occasion of previous summits. The latest Summit and Business Forum took place in Bucharest, on September 6-7, 2023, involving a political meeting of heads of state and of government and also an enterprising gathering. It is, surely, the diplomatic event of the year in Romania, a country that rarely stands out as an epicentre for diplomatic exchanges, though (much) history was undoubtedly made during the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest. Romania’s track record is even better with the 3SI, since the 2018 Summit in Bucharest saw the introduction of the first priority-projects, and the 2023 Summit achieved the first expansion of the group, with Greece literally “rounding out” the regional formula and adding an Eastern Med flair, and Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova assigned strategic partner roles. Not a bad outcome, when Romanian diplomacy is finally allowed to be determined and deviceful.
How does the 3SI stand out?
Invited to speak about Romania’s engagement in the initiative, under the auspices of the Three Seas Initiative Research Center, at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences, on March 22, 2023, in Warsaw, Poland, TMFI Editor-in-Chief Octavian Dragomir Jora summarized the 3SI logic in the following way:
(1). 3SI is a training ground as well as a playing field: it is a fertile soil for convergence and cohesion among like-minded and destiny-tied nations, based on a widely and deeply shared EU and Euro-Atlantic strategic framework, yet also on a bottom-up, rather than top-down, priority-setting spirit.
The kind of convergence/cohesion that 3SI proposes is not meant to defy the pan-EU ends and specific means, but to fuel them in a region with historical/cultural/institutional commonalties that are (should be) organically prone to catching-up and teaming-up approaches (be they in terms of transport, energy and digital infrastructures). It is a lucrative and curative view, rooted in N-S connectivity, responding to recurring laments about inertial and enduring E-W disparities, which may hinder, at least for some categories of population, the confidence in the European idea.
(2). 3SI member states, in order to build a stronger set-up, should display legitimate needs (not just blunt “national interests”), and be, at the same time, mutually resourceful (not only declaratively reliable). In Romania’s case: we crave infrastructure(s) and we may provide critical resources.
The 3SI countries, especially the former-communist ones, are urged to exploit the synergies of their development “needs”, rather than compete in terms of conflicting geopolitical/geoeconomic “interests”, and mapping those synergies is of utmost importance for the envisaged cooperation. Also, these countries ought to creatively pool the critical resources with which they are endowed, via market-based mechanisms, limiting distorting nationalist governmental (or even EU) policies, in order to tackle global supply-chains troubles (post-pandemic, war-related, environmental etc.). Whether for good or bad, this is also the US approach in supporting the 3SI, with its (otherwise paltry at around 1 billion dollars) funding allocated for projects that are “market-oriented and commercially viable”, with US funding covering just 30% of the planned investment.
(3). 3SI shall engage in “independence through interdependence”, an intra-EU echo to the outward-looking EU’s “open strategic autonomy”, where the member states are driving towards security and prosperity not on autarkic avenues, but by taking mutually beneficial and sustainable routes.
The “by-default” response (or reflex) in uncertain and turbulent times for either individuals or communities is to step back within own shells and try to secure own needs by… owned means. As geography told us, resources are not only scarce, but scattered; as history tutored us, not even empires managed to be self-sufficient, not to mention self-sustainable; and as economics teaches us, carefully cultivated complementarities nourish partnership and peace, deterring strife and war, albeit more likely in areas with minor internal unsettled issues, but with great menaces in their vicinity.
Same concerns, other tracks
TMFI Deputy Editor-in-Chief Alexandru Georgescu, after attending the Riga Summit in 2022, decided to buck the trend this year and, with most Romanian notables attending the Bucharest Summit, he went as speaker to the 32nd Economic Forum in Poland, which was held in Karpacz, Lower Silesia. For connoisseurs, this is the “Davos of the East”, formerly held yearly in Krynica, the longest running comprehensive conference in Eastern Europe, with over 5,000 yearly participants from 40 countries and with 12 subtopics from health to regional development, tourism, Ukrainian reconstruction, cybersecurity, agribusiness and more. It took place on September 5-7. Even there, the 3SI Summit and Business Forum in Romania held echoes, with the Polish experts especially counting the 3SI among the geopolitical panoply that will enhance their security and propel them to a consensual regional pre-eminence, coupled with global notability. A lot of political capital was sunk by the Polish in the 3SI, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki skipped the Economic Forum this year to attend the 3SI Summit, to the vocal irritation of Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, present in Karpacz for a Forum speaking role and for discussions with the Polish PM.
The 3SI is one pillar of the regional strategy of the Poles, supporting not just economic growth, but also military enhancements through military mobility elements attached to transport corridors like the Via Carpatia (the highway from Klaipėda, Lithuania, to Thessaloniki, Greece) and Rail2Sea (the railroad linking Gdańsk, Poland, and Constanța, Romania). They view it also as another feather in the cap of their efforts to diversify economic relations in Eastern Europe, a desire which also fuelled greater economic cooperation with China under the 17+1/16+1/now 14+1.
The 3SI is not just an economic generator, but also a training ground for CEE companies to internationalize in a friendly, culturally compatible environment with similar markets before the training wheels come off and they go to brave global markets and exotic locales. It is up to each individual country to make the best of the opportunity, as the increasingly godless capitalism of the East still adheres to the old saying that “God opens the door, but He won’t fill your bags”. Romania serves as a training ground for Polish and Hungarian companies to cut their teeth on working abroad.
The reverse does not really apply, mostly due to internal Romanian specificities. Nevertheless, there are already almost 2,000 Polish firms operating in Romania as opposed to 29 Romanian ones in Poland, and the trend has accelerated with the 3SI. Even the travel links are better and more frequent – it was a pain to keep going to Vienna to travel in the region. So the conclusion from Karpacz is that the 3SI may be a main course in the regional cooperation, but it is not the whole meal, for none of the major players involved, including Romania, but especially Hungary (which is truly charting its own course) and Poland.
Some of 3SI’s hobbled ways
The 3SI is not without its faults and these affect the performance of the initiative going forward and provided disadvantages from the very beginning.
The first issue is that the group of countries is heterogeneous and feature quite large differences in population, institutional capital, economic performance, macroeconomic characteristics etc. – the countries range from Austria to Bulgaria. The new strategic partners, Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova, are the poorest countries in Europe and the former is engulfed in a war for its very survival. This naturally means that capacity to both contribute and benefit from the 3SI varies from country to country, as seen in the distribution of priority projects, which reflects the country’s institutional capacity. Bulgaria is lowest with only 3 projects, Hungary is the highest with 14 projects after 3 were completed, Croatia is the current highest with 16 projects, and the Baltics each have between 7 and 10 projects, while Romania has only 7. In this, as in many other things, one gets the impression that the Black Sea is truly the poorer and more dysfunctional of the “three seas”. This is the same issue that plagued the Danube Macroregional Strategy of the European Commission, started by Romania and Austria, which underperformed relative to the Baltic Macroregional Strategy (for example).
The countries in the region also lack experience in regional cooperation outside of settings where an outside great power provided leadership, such as the US for NATO, Germany for the EU or Soviet Union for the Warsaw Pact. They have steadily gained experience in bilateral and multilateral cooperation with their immediate partners – Poland with the Baltics; Romania and Hungary; Romania and Bulgaria; the Visegrád Group –, but their experience in economic cooperation with more distant countries in the group is limited and prior efforts, such as the Craiova Group and the B9, to name some that were midwifed by Romania, were not in the economic realm, but rather for security and politics.
Neither are the 3SI countries great champions, aside from Austria, which is, nevertheless, a smaller (even if rich) country. This means that the 3SI is not exactly capable of ensuring the funding of strategic projects from its own resources. For the existing 81 projects, only 60% of the 162 billion euros in funding required have been identified. More than 50% of the money will come from European funding, which is why the 3SI is only expanding (currently) with EU Member States. This is not really such a problem yet, because the vast majority of projects have yet to get off the ground, with 48 out of 81 still in limbo. If Romania and Poland had had the European economies to match their populations, things would have been different. But high interest rates for foreign debt (especially in the context of the Ukraine war), the legacy of communism relegating them to catching-up growth and their own internal needs make them reliant on outside funding, especially the non-reimbursable or preferential funding of the EU. This is also why Germany has inserted itself at the table as a strategic partner, being an important funding provider, in addition to an indispensable trading and investment playmate for all countries involved, despite the fact that it would have been somehow in the 3SI countries’ interest geopolitically to keep Germany more at arms’ length, as China itself found it useful to not add Germany in its “X+1” cooperation schemes with Central and Eastern Europe.
Other partners like the US bring to the table a billion dollars or so, which is peanuts compared to the financing needs for regional projects, and of course there are strings attached. Compare this to the G20 Summit in New Delhi, also taking place in September 2023, where Japan casually announced that it was allocating another 75 billion dollars in funding for infrastructure projects in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative, a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, that erected much hysteria, via US, in the EU (see Italy). It almost makes one wish that Russia hadn’t acted up in Ukraine, allowing the CEE countries to maintain the charade of closer cooperation with China in the 14+1 initiative while extracting valuable resources and concessions from Brussels, Washington and Berlin. The security needs put a stop to the very pragmatic China flirt, and former boosters Poland and the Baltics especially pivoted hard against China as a show of investment in the security alliance with the West.
Lastly, owing to the aforementioned Atlantic Council Report that recommended North-South development that presaged the 3SI, as well as the strong political backing of the 3SI by both the Trump and the Biden Administration, the 3SI started arousing anxieties in Brussels and Berlin (less so in Paris, which is in a downward spiral of regional engagement) of American bloc-building in Eastern Europe. This reached new heights with the revitalization of “brain dead” NATO with the Ukraine invasion and the re-emergence of the US as an indispensable security partner and leader in Europe, silencing EU Army boosters for at least a generation. This is part of the reason, alongside the financial one, for Germany’s inclusion as a strategic partner, despite the 3SI leaders having doubtless anxieties about Germany taking over the whole thing. It was judged better for Germany to be brought in (with Bucharest, notably, having a say in forging this deal, as was the case with Brussels) following this sage line of reasoning: “keep your loved ones close and the rest… even closer”. The invasion of Ukraine and Germany’s slow and uncertain conversion to Russia-hawk has added new urgency to the 3SI but also papered over many talks that would have taken place with Germany otherwise. Still, the recurring anti-Americanism of the Brussels-Paris-Berlin axis will inevitably flare up again, especially now that the Americans are rubbing elbows with the Eurocrats in meeting halls once reserved for EU “open strategic autonomist” boosters, like the European Defence Agency.
Few unfinished final remarks
The 3SI started as a hesitant and flawed project, but continues as a realistic and vigorous attempt at autochthonous destiny-making in the CEE region.
“A tunic is closer to a cloak”, goes a Latin proverb (“Tunica propior pallio est”). The metaphor could be restated geostrategically as follows: the regional shirt sits closer than the global coat. Romania is a country blessed with many gifts, only lacking the spirit of globalization, despite its spasmodic flare-ups of scientific and cultural achievements (exporting more “brains” than “ideas”), as well as commercial and investment breakthroughs (having scarce in-house “added value”). It is cursed to continuously restock its own pantry to make up for its losses and to constantly reassess its nearby space. “The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must”, the realpolitik’s praised grandfather Thucydides once said. It is no easy feat, on a sliver of the world that scientists and philosophers struggle to define: is it a “Pivot” or the “Heartland of the World-Island”?; “Middle Tier” or “Cordon Sanitaire”?; the “West of the East” or the “East of the West”?; “Buffer Zone” or “Gateway Area”?; “Hard Power” ring or “Soft/Smart Power” flashpoint?; tied or untied from a Turkey which is “running away from Mecca, chased away by Brussels”, forced to whirl like some dervish between Washington and Moscow?
In light of the aforementioned talk, regional cooperation is, most likely, the answer to the question: “How can Romania become more globally relevant?”.
This question becomes decent if and only if its purpose exhibits decency as well: being relevant, in Romania’s case, doesn’t entail being ostentatious/conspicuous, but timely/opportune. Being at the right place, at the right time from a geostrategic point of view. As a reminder, geostrategy involves geopolitics (a subject which exhibits how territory dictates power), as well as deeply rooted national impetus (branching out due to constant changes), in the grand scheme of formulating long-term plans and propositions. By the way, “by-the-book” geostrategy, even if only regionally, cannot work without a… book. We found it useful to revisit and maybe, revise prejudices which target the way regional cooperation can put us on the global map, with a “book of books” belonging to Romanian scholarship. Paying tribute to outstanding worldwide literature, as well as to idiosyncratic (regionally and Romanian) modi cogendi/operandi/vivendi, Geostrategia, by Silviu Negut and Marius Cristian Neacsu, fellow scholars from the Bucharest University of Economic Studies, curated by the Meteor Press Publishing House, can be the “gambit” of those interested in the “great chess board of the world or… region”.