At first glance, the year 2021 may seem very promising for Central European countries, many of which came through the COVID-19 pandemic with fewer losses than most Western European states – especially taking into account their unemployment rate or GDP decline. What is more, the previous year ended with a relatively strong signal of the further development of the Three Seas Initiative (a project of twelve Central European countries located along the Baltic Sea, the Adriatic Sea, and the Black Sea), strengthening its intergovernmental and executive qualities. On top of that, the new members’ contributions in the region enlarged the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund (TSIIF), and the US announced its first financial input.
In the first quarter of 2021, we have been celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the Visegrad Group (V4), established on February 15, 1991. For years, V4 has been a symbol of Central Europe’s international activity and a new way of coordinating regional cooperation. However, some uneasiness and gloom can now be felt in this axis connecting the Baltic, the Adriatic, and the Black Sea. The reasons for this should be looked for outside the region in the first place.
The situation in the European Union is the primary source of concern. First of all, its statutory institutions, such as the European Commission and the European Parliament, claim the right to extend their powers beyond the Treaties and create a quasi-federalist governance model. However, the European Commission has proven to be completely helpless in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and is now faced with the dictates of large pharmaceutical companies. Having obtained huge funds to speed up work on vaccines against COVID-19 and then received orders for these preparations on behalf of the entire Community, these corporations suddenly treat the contracts in declaratory rather than obligatory terms. Another factor adding up to this chaos is the European Union’s ineffectiveness during the first spring wave of the pandemic. The effect was that the member states and the EU’s closest partners were practically on their own. Little has been done to improve this negative image in the fall or recent weeks.
Summit of the Visegrad Group Prime Ministers. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (center), and the prime ministers of Hungary Viktor Orbán (second right), the Czech Republic Andrej Babiš (right), Slovakia Igor Matovič (left), and President of the European Council Charles Michel (second left) attend a welcoming ceremony in Krakow, February 17, 2021.The Visegrad Group Summit was held to mark the 30th anniversary of the Visegrad Group cooperation framework.
One might even get the impression that the chaos and the lack of knowledge on what to do in the face of the pandemic’s second wave have deepened even further. An illustration of this was one of the latest press conferences of Ursula von der Leyen at the beginning of February this year. The head of the European Commission admitted that the EU neglected the process of ordering vaccines – which resulted in delays (for instance in the USA, Israel, or Great Britain) in the vaccination process and will undoubtedly bring further perturbations to the economies of the members of the Community. It was a big disappointment and surprise that the EU failed to act on behalf of its neighbors, especially when it turned out that the Western Balkans received more help from China (as part of the “mask diplomacy”) than from the powerful European Community, while Serbia got aid from Russia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina from Turkey.
The European Commission and the largest Western countries were so determined to conclude the EU and China’s investment agreement that they left aside Beijing’s responsibility for starting the pandemic – if only by restricting access to information. As experts point out, if China had communicated the threat in time, the scope of the pandemic could have been reduced by as much as 80%, as in the case of the first SARS epidemic in 2002–2003. Instead of being held responsible, Beijing is now becoming a strategic partner for the European Union, or at least for its few member states. All this happened during Germany’s EU Council presidency, and it led to an exceptional situation where the normative power of the Community – its showcase, something we could boast of – has today become an oxymoron. Especially given the behavior of EU leaders towards the situation in Belarus and Russia.
In this context, relations between China and Central and Eastern European countries prove to be a new challenge for the entire region. Strengthened by the favorable attitude of the European Commission and Western states, Beijing will try even harder to demand concessions from weaker countries. China has clearly used to its advantage since the 16+1 format was launched in 2012 (and now expanded to the 17+1 format including Greece) to map the region, find most interesting areas of potential cooperation, and try to take over the more attractive companies without much expense. From Central Europe’s perspective, the record of cooperation with China is more than disappointing (except maybe for Hungary and, with regard to the countries outside of the EU – for Serbia). Instead of investments raising innovativeness of industry and creating new highly specialized jobs, we received “highway-like” products and attempts of an aggressive capital takeover of some enterprises.
In the coming months, the various Central European capitals will most likely encounter a different face of Chinese public diplomacy. Beijing used the COVID-19 pandemic crisis to change its previous policy towards the region and even the entire European continent. Until now, China’s principal diplomatic tool was to present itself as a trade partner willing to play the role of a peaceful actor, promoting its humanistic culture and universal Confucian philosophy in relations with others. Now, it turns out that any attempts to criticize China’s actions are met with an almost immediate response, and it is no longer just a smooth action to shrug off responsibility for the pandemic. The hashtag #ChinaVirus has been present in social media for a remarkably short time. Instead, now we hear more often about the “British virus” or its Brazilian variant. Add to this an increasingly hostile attitude towards any contact with Taiwan, the victim of which was the Czech Republic last year, when Chinese diplomacy provoked a severe diplomatic crisis following Czech Senate Speaker Miloš Vystrčil’s visit to Taipei in August 2020. It remains to be seen what further consequences Prague’s another decision – to eliminate Chinese entities from the competition to modernize and expand the Dukovany nuclear power station – will have on bilateral relations. With all this in mind, one may come to a conclusion that any criticism of China in modern times requires great courage.
Another source of uncertainty in some Central European countries is the outcome of the presidential election in the United States, and even more so, its political crisis caused by the method of transferring power and the Capitol riot. The election of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the US will be challenging for many, especially for countries with excellent contacts with Donald Trump’s administration. This does not mean that relations with the new U.S. leader will automatically cool, but they will undoubtedly require some rearranging. From Washington’s perspective, what will not change with regard to the previous administration will be the attitude towards China as the biggest competitor to the US position of the world leader.
Donald Trump’s administration has treated the Central European region as an element of Washington’s broader European policy – as an instrument for putting pressure on Western allies to bear higher defense costs and to cease economic and political teamwork with countries trying to weaken the North Atlantic Alliance (such as Germany’s cooperation with Russia on the Nord Stream 2 project). For Washington, Central Europe is a promising market not only for American energy resources or armaments but also for other products. Until now, Central Europe has played a marginal role in trade with the United States, generating approximately 1.5% of the total turnover of US goods and services with the world. In comparison, the involvement of the Central European members of the Three Seas Initiative (3SI) in Germany’s trade accounts for 20%, and in Russia’s – more than 10%.
Therefore, the US participation and its certain patronage of the 3SI should be read in terms of a well-executed calculation and an attempt to clear the backlog in its economic cooperation. This was the purpose of Donald Trump’s visit during the Warsaw 2017 Summit, the constant presence of high-ranking US politicians at meetings, and more recently, Washington’s financial involvement in the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund or proposals for closer partnership in the nuclear energy field.
For many Central European politicians, who are typically disregarded on the “backstage” of the EU by those representing richer countries, such an approach from the Americans evoked sympathy. The outcome of the US presidential election left open the question of how the new Washington administration will approach its predecessors’ policies towards the Three Seas region. As the first statements of people associated with President Biden indicate, these changes do not automatically mean a total reversal of previous actions – but uncertainty remains. In contrast to these reassuring signals, there have been reports of the new president’s very reluctant attitude towards exploiting energy resources, especially shale gas.
Foreseeing the consequences of the new energy policy would be difficult, but in the worst possible scenario, American gas supplies could be limited – both for Poland and the LNG terminal on the island of Krk in Croatia, the latter of which is just being opened. In the long run, this would pose a threat to the 3SI as a forum for cooperation among EU countries interested in closer relations with the United States. There is no official position of the new Washington administration on nuclear energy, which, in the case of reduced interest of the US in exploiting gas deposits and exporting them to Central Europe, could serve as an alternative area for business ties with the region.
Poland’s nuclear strategy and the Czech Republic’s plans to modernize its existing nuclear power plants involve excluding Chinese partners from the project, which many interpreted as an invitation for American technology in this area. With the new President Joe Biden emphasizing his attachment to the principles of liberal democracy and progressive trends, France or Germany may prove to be closer partners for the US in Europe in the near future. However, the actions of the two largest EU member states in favor of the prompt conclusion of the EU-China investment agreement and Berlin’s stubbornness in finalizing the investment, as well as the German leaders’ defense of the Nord Stream 2 project, have put the Americans to a challenging test. It is, therefore, not out of the question that the first efforts to warm up relations between the United States and Western Europe will result in disappointment. However, it is not easy to say what consequences this will bring for the Central European region – whether it will translate into Washington’s isolationist policy or, perhaps, diversification of its relations with a greater emphasis on the European Union’s eastern members.
Some more optimism is coming from Central Europe. So far, macroeconomic and social data indicate that this region is doing pretty well in its struggle with the pandemic, and its GDP decline and unemployment levels are below the EU average. Despite the restrictions, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary are preparing to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Visegrad Group. The event, organized in Pomerania, Poland, on February 9, 2021, was initiated by President Andrzej Duda and his counterparts – Zuzana Čaputova, János Áder, and Miloš Zeman. This anniversary should be celebrated and is definitely worth celebrating because it shows that Central European countries can organize themselves autonomously and independently around the most important issues. Thirty years ago, this was a “return to Europe,” cooperation for integration with Euro-Atlantic institutions – as the then president of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel, said. Today, it is rather about playing an active role in the EU by representing the interests of the new members of the Community, preserving the prospect of bloc membership for the Western Balkans, as well as promoting serious pro-reform support for the Eastern Partnership countries.
There is even better news coming from the states involved in the Three Seas Initiative. Despite the restrictions, Estonia found a way to organize the postponed presidential summit in Tallinn on October 19, 2020. It was initially planned to be held in June, and the cancellation at the time was prompted by hopes that the health crisis could be contained by the fall. In the face of the second wave of the pandemic, the hosts had quite a challenge whether to hold the event and how it should be organized. Estonian President Kersti Kuljulaid showed great determination to organize the summit, although in a limited form, which is worth commenting on for several reasons.
Estonia took the opportunity to present itself as a modern country using digital technologies, familiar with the virtual world, and promoting the E-stonia brand. The summit was hybrid, with three members present in Tallinn: the host of the event, President Kersti Kuljulaid, Polish President Andrzej Duda – as one of the initiators of 3SI – and Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, who will host the Three Seas Initiative summit in 2021. The remaining presidents were present online, although this facilitated form did not mean that all of them attended – Hungarian President János Áder and the newly elected Croatian President Zoran Milanović did not participate in the virtual debate of the leaders. The participation of the EU and the US delegates was an important signal – EC Vice President Margarethe Vestager represented the former and the Deputy Secretary of Energy in President Trump’s administration Mark Menezes – the latter. No official representative of Germany attended the summit in any form, and we will find out at the next meetings whether this will translate into a permanent change in Berlin’s attitude towards the Three Seas Initiative.
Another important message sent from Tallinn was the announcement to finalize the first transaction from the Three Seas Investment Fund (TSIF), which is no longer perceived as a Polish caprice but is becoming quite a desirable partner. In Estonia, declarations were made that more countries would join the TSIF, and the United States announced its co-financing. At the beginning of the year, press agencies informed about Lithuania joining the Fund with a minimum financial contribution of 20 million euros. At present, only the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Austria have not yet made a binding decision on their role in the TSIF.
Foundation of the Visegrad Group. President of the Czechoslovak Republic, Václav Havel (left), the President ofthe Republic of Poland, Lech Wałęsa (right), and the Prime Minister of the Republic of Hungary, József Antall (center). Visegrád, February 15, 1991.
Another country to pay attention to in the coming months is Bulgaria – the host of this year’s 3SI summit, tentatively scheduled for June. This country’s involvement should be especially appreciated, as it has so far been one of the least active members of the Initiative. This has translated, among other things, into a small number of infrastructure projects submitted to the joint list drawn up at the Bucharest summit in 2018 and earmarked for implementation under the then-proposed Fund. If this year’s summit also includes the meeting not only in the presidential format, but also involving government plenipotentiaries executing the projects, it will be a very positive signal. It will show that the Three Seas Initiative is developing and moving from the stage of political declarations to realizing governmental decisions. Presidents in Central Europe play an essential but primarily representative role. It is the governments and their agendas that are responsible for putting these political declarations into practice.
Even though the dynamics of 2020 may have already been dizzying, this year is very unlikely to get any slower. There are many events ahead of us that may significantly influence Central Europe’s position in relations with other big actors, and this region will face new trends and changes in attitudes towards, for example, the Three Seas Initiative. It is a great pity that the pandemic unleashed by China will hinder the grand celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the Visegrad Group, as V4 deserves a festival of joy. I personally believe that without this first regional cooperation format initiated in 1991, Central Europe would most likely be much different today. It would not have had a chance for such a level of mutual trust, and the Three Seas Initiative would probably not have been established.