On 11 April, the ninth annual Three Seas(3SI) Summit and Business Forum was held in Vilnius, Lithuania. In attendance were heads of state, business leaders and diplomats, gathered to discuss the most pressing matters facing the nations between the Black, Baltic and Adriatic seas. Top of the agenda was security: digital, physical and economic.

Clear from the outset was a deep-seated belief that Russia intends to target NATO member states on its border. In her opening remarks, Lithuanian prime minister Ingrida Šimonytė said, “To expect that the aggressor’s imperialistic ambitions stop in Ukraine is naive, irrational, wishful, short sighted and unforgivable. […] Security is not everything, but without it, there is not much else.”

The Three Seas Initiative began in 2015 as an attempt, led by Poland and Croatia, to improve infrastructure and capital availability in the region. Despite many of its participants belonging to the Eastern Bloc for the second half of the 20th century, core EU infrastructure still mainly runs East to West rather than North to South, limiting coordination between the states. For instance, it takes almost twice as long to get the train from Warsaw to Vilnius as it does to get from Warsaw to Berlin, despite the distance between the latter two being larger.

Despite its mighty ambitions, the bloc’s importance has faded in recent years, failing to even reach its €5bn infrastructure investment target. In an ironic twist, the invasion of Ukraine and the country’s subsequent inclusion as a partner-participant of 3SI in 2023 may be the catalyst needed to allow the initiative to reach its potential. Šimonytė noted the “clear security dimension” taken on since the war began, emphasises its renewed importance.

Security and infrastructure

The threat of invasion bled into all aspects of the conference. Cybersecurity was necessary to stop Russian attacks in an election year – global cyberattacks from Russia as well as other malicious actors are expected to increase by 300% this year compared with 2020 levels. Defence spending and aid to Ukraine were key areas of focus at the political Summit, where Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda pledged to attempt an increase to the country’s debt cap in order to spend more on Ukraine.

Industry, too, was keen to highlight its efforts to help Ukraine. During a panel discussion on cohesive economic development in the 3SI region, Nadia Calviño, President of the European Investment Bank, drew attention to the €2bn raised to support the country, mainly in the realm of critical infrastructure. Owen Herrnstadt, a member of the board of directors of the Export-Import Bank of United States (ExImB) also noted its recent $156m loan to Ukrainian railways supporting the purchase of US trains.

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The ExImB has currently got a $300m exposure in the 3SI region, but Hernnstadt said it was committed to doing more, a sentiment echoed by André Küüsvek, President and CEO of the Nordic Investment Bank.

Climate a key focus for Three Seas

Some 39% of the current total investment raised by the 3SI is focused on energy, and it remained a key topic for the conference. In a panel discussion on the topic, European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius made clear that whilst the move from dependency on Russian oil was important, it was equally vital to ensure that this doesn’t push Europe into the arms of China: “it would be extremely short sighted if we replaced our dependency on Russian oil and gas by dependency on Chinese materials.”

Public-private partnership was emphasised, with Joshua Volz, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the US Department of Energy arguing for “an innovation ecosystem that is policy enabled, and private sector delivered.” He also defended the US’ incomplete oil sanctions on Russia, saying that there was a need to “hold two things going on at the same time.

“One is denying Mr. Putin and his regime the resources that it needs to continue to persecute this war. The second is not mortgaging that goal against global energy security and creating […] chaos in the global energy system, because that’s also something that that benefits Mr. Putin and his goals of destabilisation.”

Also on the panel was Ben Butters, CEO of industry representative Eurochambres. He challenged the EU’s green policy, saying that the Green New Deal, a key piece of legislation aiming at net zero, put a “huge” burden on business. He accused the policy of encouraging European businesses to invest in less green parts of the world, saying that “we can’t regulate our way to net zero.”

Competitiveness, connectivity, and cohesion within the Three Seas

Various alternate meanings have been given to the Three Seas (Cs), with words like cooperation, competitiveness, connectivity and collaboration prevalent throughout the panels, talks and side events. These overarching themes boil down to a desire for integration: historically for economic ends, but this year with a clear security dimension alongside.

The question that is inevitably asked after such a conference is to what extent it has furthered these goals. Despite the multilateral participants and big political names in attendance, the press conference following the Summit offered little beyond platitudes and continued pleas for aid from Zelenskyy.

The business forum yielded two large announcements. One was the signing of the second Three Seas investment fund, which has at least €155m pledged by its various signatories including Lithuania’s national development institution, the Polish national bank and the Hungarian Export-Import Bank. The hope is that the fund will continue to grow as partner banks and financial institutions decide to invest. Whilst this fund is certainly not insubstantial, the last fell considerably short of its goal; time will tell if there is more substance here.

The second announcement was the expansion of 3SI’s strategic partners to include Japan, which joins the ranks of the US, Germany and the European Commission. Although Japan does healthy trade with the EU generally and an expansion of investment into Eastern Europe would likely be mutually beneficial, the title alone has no clear requirements. It may well mean that the Japanese business presence at future 3SI events is larger than previously, as indeed it was this year, but how much that will translate into real trade remains to be seen.

There were doubtless other important conversations had and partnerships forged on the side-lines of the Business Forum, but whether they were more successful under the 3SI branding than they would have been at any other business forum is unclear. The organisation still lacks a formal structure or way to raise funds, and as elections loom in many of the member states, the organisation risks being forgotten in favour of flashier domestic or EU projects.