Limes: the Trimarium Initiative

Trimarium: a (subjective) view from Poland

When Trimarium was announced in 2015, a multitude of mixed opinions on its aims appeared, both inside and outside the region. For many, it brought associations with interwar Intermarium to mind, although for different reasons. Trimarium’s proponents have argued that it can create favourable conditions for intraregional cooperation in Central Europe. Others have suggested that it is more of an ‘anti’ rather than a ‘pro’ project, aimed at improving ties between a limited number of states at the expense of the pan-EU cooperation. As Poland lies at the geographical heart of Trimarium, its interests and plans are to a large extent indicative of the initiative.

This article was published in Limes monthly (12/2017) in Italian.

Why did Intermarium fail?

Since its emergence in 1917-1920 as a region consisting of independent, small and medium-sized states, Central Europe has faced several existential challenges. First, it had to gain recognition among European and world powers. This task was difficult for many reasons. Countries from Yugoslavia in the south to Finland in the north were created on the ruins of three monarchic empires: Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia. Initially, it was not clear whether at least two of them would not overcome the risk of dissolution, although under a redefined political shape. National political elites needed to constantly convince their British, French and American counterparts that the new order in the region had stable fundaments and that there was no coming back to ancien regime.

Central Europe was a mosaic of different traditions, cultures, as well as of political and institutional orders. Unification of new nation-states was challenging. The vast majority of them was not free from ethnic tensions to which the tragic solution was only brought by World War Two. Politico-cultural mosaic also resulted in uncertainty of borders. Conflicts over them, also with Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia, significantly delayed overcoming of internal challenges.

All of these preconditions left a negative imprint on intraregional initiatives. With a very low starting point and contradicting interests on the ground, Central European countries found it extremely difficult to embark on even modest forms of cooperation. Probably the most noticeable attempts to change it were made in the field of security. In 1929 Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania and the Soviet Union signed the Litvinov Protocol which meant immediate entry into force of the Briand-Kellogg Pact of August 1928 renouncing war as a political means. Later on, Lithuania, Persia and Turkey joined the Protocol. Yet it did not prevent the Soviet Union from aggression against Poland in September 1939 and annexation of the Baltic States several months later.

In this context, already in 1914 numerous politicians and thinkers saw the threats that Central Europe would have to face in its independent, post-war life. Józef Piłsudski, who later became the father of military successes of Poland during its fight for borders between 1918-1921, drew from binding supranational traditions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He also referred to the Jagiellonian dynasty, which at some point in time ruled Hungary and Bohemia, binding vast Central and Eastern European territories into one dynastic realm. Piłsudski proposed a federation of states lying between the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Seas, which he called the Intermarium. The rationale behind the idea was simple: Central European countries needed to face security challenges from the west and from the east. A joint response to them might have turned out to be the only way to maintain independence of the region as a whole. Piłsudski saw the Intermarium both as a defensive alliance, and as an effective deterrence against aggressive actions.

A new opening

The Intermarium concept failed. The majority of Central European countries and nations were unable to overcome political, territorial and ethnic tensions. The region could not withstand differing interests of two main neighbouring stakeholders – Germany and the Soviet Union. Security situation deteriorated further after 1933. The catastrophe of World War Two and its results completely reshaped the geopolitical mien of the region. Being under almost utter domination of the Kremlin, Central Europe could only engage in Moscow-blessed initiatives, all being coordinated and managed by Soviet comrades with no or very little space for independent manoeuvre.

It all changed between 1989 and 1991. Political, economic and moral bankruptcy of communism meant new opening for the region. Many in Western Europe feared, however, that the collapse of the bipolar world might wake up the ghosts of the past: nationalism, ethnic tensions and territorial disputes. Similarly to 1918, Central Europe in 1989 had to prove that it had responsible political elites who were focused on promoting development and cooperation rather than stoking up strife and tensions.

The path towards democracy and free market economy led through painful structural reforms. In order to make them a bit more bearable, new windows of cooperation opened covering a whole range of territorial and topical diversity. One of the very first ones, the Central European Initiative, already in 1989 provided a framework for exchange of views and coordination of action, especially during the first phase of the transition period. Then, other formats were created, such as the Visegrad Group. Czechoslovakia (Czech Republic and Slovakia from 1993 onwards), Hungary and Poland shared geopolitical and economic challenges which helped them join their efforts. It bore fruits already in 1999 when three V4 countries joined NATO and in 2004 four when the whole grouping joined the European Union. Other formats included, for instance, the Central European Free Trade Agreement and the Council of the Baltic Sea States. They have all contributed to an impressive mosaic of initiatives spanning on the area of at least a million square kilometres with more than a hundred million inhabitants.

The two Europes

The 2004 EU enlargement by 10 countries marked the end of the first phase of the transition in Central Europe. Supplemented by Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 and Croatia in 2013, it led to further integration of the region with its western neighbours. Almost 14 years after one can still hear voices speaking about ‘new member states’, thus differentiating ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe. Yet such thinking has increasingly little to do with facts on the ground. Czechia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania and Estonia have already outpaced some of the ‘old’ EU states in terms of GDP (PPP) and are getting closer to Italy or Spain. Others, such as Poland, keep after their neighbours. Conclusions drawn from the Human Development Index, rankings on the quality of primary and secondary education or ease of doing business, further weaken the rationale of the dichotomy.

Even in ‘new’ EU member states, traditional understanding of the West as a reference point is strong. It has been so mainly because for more than 25 years Central Europe was focused rather on building connections between individual countries and Western Europe as a whole, in particular with Germany, which due to many reasons serves as a gate to the West. This strive was visible in terms of trade, infrastructural projects and people-to-people contacts. The general public remains largely unaware of how massive these efforts have been. Let me give you one example: for a number of years already the trade volume between Germany and the V4 countries has been larger than between Germany and France (over EUR 240 billion and EUR 180 billion in 2015, respectively, according to the German Federal Statistical Office).

Such a boom in trade would not be possible without proper infrastructure. Indeed, a quick look at the map shows that most of the highways constructed in Central Europe since 1989 go horizontally. One can easily reach Berlin, Brussels or Munich from Brno, Bratislava or Warsaw, but going for a holiday to the Baltic Sea coast from Czechia or Slovakia with a car might take the whole day. By the same token, reaching the Balkans or Romania from Poland is far from comfortable. In fact, it is a venture for off-road enthusiasts or long-time travellers who expect the unexpected. One can imagine how impeding effect this has had on intraregional economic cooperation.

This is precisely where Trimarium enters the game.

Why is Trimarium important?

Announced in 2015 by presidents Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović of Croatia and Andrzej Duda of Poland,  Trimarium appeared in a very peculiar moment in terms of dynamics of European and global politics. The migratory crisis was at its peak. The conflict in Donbas just entered its protracted phase. Crucial EU countries were on the eve of elections or electoral campaigns. Brexit was looming on the horizon. Many commentators were arguing that Trimarium was aimed at weakening the unity and the cohesion of the EU at the moment when it needed it most.

While voicing such concerns, little attention was paid to the contents of the initiative. Already in 2015 Central European experts and think-tankers were predominantly underlining the economic and infrastructural aspects. For Poland, lying at the very middle of what might be referred to as northern Central Europe and southern Central Europe, overcoming technical shortcomings is crucial to diversify developmental chances of the region.

The Trimarium initiative neither competes with projects and goals pursued by the European Union, nor does it try to create an alternate integration core outside of the EU structures. On the contrary, it creates space for increased complementarity between Brussels-based projects and hitherto achievements of the Western-Central European cooperation. By building meridian highways and expressways it inscribes into the Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T). Numerous examples include Via Baltica or the S3 expressway connecting the city of Szczecin with Czechia. What is more, they enhance already existing transportation projects. Via Hanseatica aims at connecting Germany, Poland, Kaliningrad Oblast, Lithuania and Latvia where it reaches Via Baltica. Both transport corridors cross in Lithuania with another one – Via Carpathia, going as far south as to the harbour of Thessalonica in Greece. These projects are likely to increase investment attractiveness of the east of the EU.

Enhancing regional trade and creating technical possibilities for new forms of economic cooperation will eventually strengthen the EU internal market, laying stronger fundaments for further work on diminishing economic differences between various member states. The less infrastructural bottlenecks there are in the EU as a whole, the bigger chances for a more dynamic and more effective integration all its members get. In this regard, Trimarium is likely to become a valuable and, perhaps, inseparable part of the European project which is all the more important in times of uneasiness caused by Brexit.

Is geopolitics involved?

The concept of Trimarium is, just as the vast majority of other post-1989 regional initiatives in Europe, not directed at anyone. Although this statement might sound as a cliché, it bears serious implications both on the western and eastern edge of Central Europe given the shifting security situation in Europe since almost 5 years.

Since the outbreak of the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the Russo-Ukrainian conflict in Donbas, Central Europe has once again found itself in the proximity of a major security crisis. Its implications go far beyond Eastern Europe or, broadly speaking, the post-Soviet space. The crisis has shown that there is a number of new generation threats that are faced by both the states and their populations, related not only to media propaganda but also energy and transport infrastructure.

The more alternative routes and inter-systemic connections there are, the easier it is to secure supplies of natural gas or oil, and to evade major electricity cuts which would affect the whole economy of a state. In this sense, the Trimarium is an extension of the ongoing projects, such as the Lithuania-Poland electricity grid link between the Baltic transmission system and the Continental Synchronous Area. On the south part of Trimarium, there are plans to create connections with Poland which would create an ever-better integrated EU energy system. Relevant agreements were signed in July 2017 in Warsaw.

Apart from building interconnectors, it is vital for all Trimarium countries to create infrastructure necessary to import gas and oil from overseas. Although the majority of these projects is done by respective countries separately, it comes as no surprise that the overall result will be beneficial for their neighbours, too. LNG terminals already operate in Świnoujście, Poland, and Klaipėda, Lithuania. The new ones are likely to be constructed on the island of Krk, Croatia, and near Odesa, Ukraine.

Should Russia fear Trimarium? Since 1991, the policies pursued by the Kremlin have been focused on stirring disputes and playing Central European countries against one another rather than benefitting from enhanced multilateral cooperation. This helped Moscow lead the usual bilateral diplomacy as chances of a joint regional stance in many areas were meagre. In this sense, every cooperation initiative that encompasses a wide range of Central European states is not welcome by Russia. It becomes even more obvious in the field of energy. Enhancing interconnectivity has always come at the expense of Russia’s leverage over its direct and indirect neighbours.

Of course, creating new opportunities of cooperation in infrastructure and energy sectors does not mean that Trimarium is not open for defence-related initiatives. On the contrary, existing formats of military exercises or exchange of experiences might and should be enhanced in the face of numerous threats and vulnerabilities that Central European states shares. Yet they will not substitute actions performed within the framework of NATO or the EU, which showed in November 2017 when all of the Trimarium countries signed the PESCO notification.

The Central European flesh and the EU bone

Trimarium differs substantially from Intermarium although it would not be wrong to forgo the latter a great deal of inspiration. Both the circumstances and the outline of the initiative are utterly different. Intermarium was more about hard security in the face of existential threats posed by Germany and the Soviet Union. Nowadays there is no such a double threat. Moreover, the institutional framework of Europe as a whole has altered substantially. Trimarium relies on the benefits of the European and Transatlantic integration and aims at helping maintain its pace. It has been designed to work within the European Union and use the tools it offers. This is why it consists of EU member states exclusively. Trimarium has not been sketched to work outwards but inwards.

Trimarium is a long-term strategic project with a clear infrastructural agenda. It tries to forge the Central European complexity from being its weakness to one of its greatest assets. At the same time, leaders of all 12 countries involved declare that its success can only be built on the success of the European Union as the initiative promotes better cohesion and interconnectedness. There are little reasons for doubting such statements.

Politically speaking, two hitherto organised summits, in Dubrovnik and Warsaw, are themselves a proof that Central Europe is evolving from a region of discontent to a region of cooperation. This fact draws a clear line of division between what Intermarium was desired to be and what Trimarium is gradually becoming. Nevertheless, there is no space for being overenthusiastic unless main infrastructural projects are completed. Thus, Trimarium can only bear fruits after years of constant work on the ground.

For all that, the well-being of Trimarium is related to the well-being of the European Union which faces the most serious challenges in its history. If the initiative succeeds, not only will it proves its critics to be wrong. More importantly, it will add new flesh to what one might think is an old bone.