While Warsaw hopes for the U.S. to support its regional ambitions, Berlin and Brussels watch carefully.
The shared interests of Donald Trump and Polish President Andrzej Duda – the two main protagonists of this week’s high-level meeting in Warsaw – are easy to define: both need foreign policy successes to help them out of their domestic quagmires.
After his disastrous trip to Brussels and Taormina, friendly pictures with European leaders and cheering crowds at his public speech could help Trump repair his image at home. For Duda, the meeting itself is already a success: Poland is having a difficult time in Europe, and the government could not think of a better occasion to show to its citizens that the widely discussed marginalization is a myth. This is the easy part, where the expectations of both sides are likely to be fulfilled.
But the importance of Trump’s visit in Warsaw goes far beyond the photo shooting session. For Poland’s government, it is a test of its rising aspirations as leader of the Three Seas Initiative. It will show to what extent the regional cooperation’s common interests prevail over its persisting political divisions. Moreover, coming at a time of rising tensions between the EU and the U.S. on the one hand and an increasing ‘de-Europeanisation’ of Poland on the other hand, the summit also puts the block’s unity under stress.
Warsaw and Washington: an alliance of sovereigntists?
Trump’s language – on national pride, conservative values, ‘America first’ and non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs – has a strong appeal with Poland’s ‘sovereigntists’, pushing aside doubts related to his Russia or NATO policy. On the latter, Warsaw believes to be a good ally, who deserves and will be granted America’s support: it spends two percent of GDP on defence and is ready to support the U.S. in its fight against the Islamic State. Even if far-reaching promises on a further strengthening of NATO’s eastern flank (Poland’s key security interest) are not to be expected, Trump is likely to satisfy Warsaw’s longing for respect and praise.
Poland wants to become an energy hub in Central and Eastern Europe, achieving full gas independence from Russia.
But sovereignty is not just about security. Poland is on a collision course with EU institutions and key member states, protecting its illiberal transformation against foreign criticism while aiming at limiting the power of the EU’s supranational bodies. Trump’s criticism of the EU may thus find a positive echo in Warsaw, even if Poland is not interested in escalating the tensions within Europe. What is of much bigger importance to Duda’s government, is a U.S.-commitment to pushing economic cooperation and investment.
Such support would be of vital importance for the Three Seas Initiative, the latest pet project of Poland’s conservative government. Launched formally in August 2016, the initiative unites the twelve EU member states between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas, formally promoting improved cooperation on all levels. Its priorities however lie with infrastructure projects along the North-South axis, particularly in the areas of energy and transport.
Poland, together with Croatia, is the main driver of the initiative, and for good reasons. Energy plays a central role in Warsaw’s calculations. It not only strives for full gas independence from Russia, but wants to become an energy hub in Central and Eastern Europe itself, providing for real gas diversification in the region. Poland already has a fully operational LNG terminal in Swinoujscie, whose capacity it is planning to increase (now: 5 bcm), and wants to build the Baltic Pipe to connect Poland (through Denmark) with the Norwegian Gas fields. The expectations for the latter are high, with the Polish pipeline operator Gas System expecting Poland to be able to distribute up to 70 bcm in the region.
Yet, there are two main obstacles in its way. First, should Nord Stream II (capacity: 55 bcm) be realised, Central Europe would be flooded with Russian gas and Germany take up the role of the hub. Poland’s costly investments into energy diversification would be wasted. While it is still not clear whether Nord Stream II will actually happen, with crucial legal and political questions still open, ‘the Three Seas Initiative is a response to Nord Stream II’ in the eyes of a high-level Polish diplomat. Second, Poland’s plans need huge investments into pipelines and LNG terminals – and this is where Trump’s visit comes in.
The first shipment of American LNG to Poland in June was welcomed as a harbinger of future cooperation, with hopes about US-investments in support of the TSI running high. The nexus between energy, infrastructure and security is obvious and strong: having the U.S. as stakeholders of the region’s prosperity is as important to Warsaw as the American brigade that was deployed to the country this year. The question that remains open however is whether Trump is both willing and able to provide such support.
Three seas and many views
The feelings about the U.S. president are mixed in the region, and leaders will watch both Trump and Duda with scepticism. Most countries are far less ready than Warsaw to put their eggs into the American basket – especially if it might come at the expense of strained relations with Berlin or Brussels. Vienna and Prague, doubtful about the political rationale of the initiative, deliberately avoid participating in the summit at a presidential level. Most other countries, like Romania, Slovenia or Slovakia, strongly oppose any ‘politicization’ of the project that could spoil their relations with Berlin or Brussels. Poland’s proposal to boost the initiative with the creation of a permanent secretariat in 2016 were already rejected by the other members back then.
Those which wish for more infrastructural and economic cooperation, and perceive the TSI as useful from this perspective, demand more clarity and concrete results. They are afraid that without a strong economic essence in the form of transnational projects and contracts, the TSI risks becoming a mere tool for political games. They expect a flagship project that offers a strategic outlook – yet so far it is unclear whether the Warsaw summit can deliver on that point. Poland invited business representatives from the region to come up with their own concepts – an approach that was met with little enthusiasm, and led some decision-makers to turn down the invitation.
Trump’s visit could be a game changer if the U.S. decided to invest into the regional infrastructure, boosting economic cooperation and growth. But while the rising U.S. interest in exporting LNG to Europe meets Warsaw’s strategic approach to energy diversification and its ambition to become an energy hub, it does not necessarily correspond with the expectations of other TSI members. Many do not object to buying the Russian gas (be it directly or from Germany or Austria) provided that the price is low and the deliveries stable. They expect results in the form of investments into new railways and better roads from South to North instead, and are keen to prioritise concrete economic benefits over political show.
Spectre of new-old divides in Europe
Poland perceives the TSI as a vehicle for its position within the EU. While Warsaw is keen to emphasize that the project is not geared against Germany or Brussels, it openly maintains that Germany’s hegemony in Europe should be rebalanced. It is difficult not to see the TSI as a political tool for this purpose, for example by leveraging possible American interests in the region.
Berlin is concerned about the TSI on two counts. First, Warsaw’s energy plans may put at risk Germany’s ambitions to become a major European gas hub. The proposal by the U.S. Congress to allow sanctions against the European companies behind Nord Stream II has put the plans under significant pressure already. Second, the prospect of being politically pushed away from Central and Eastern Europe – as the Three Seas Initiative is suspected to intend – runs against Berlin’s strategic interest of being anchored both in Europe’s East and West.
It did not come down well in Berlin that Sigmar Gabriel was invited to speak at the Global Forum – a major conference organized in Warsaw during Trump’s visit – but not to participate in the TSI meetings taking place the same day. He turned down the invitation, citing other commitments. Also all three invited EU Commissioners declined to come. The reason might have been that they were supposed to take part only in the economic part of the event – and not in the political talks with Trump and the TSI.
Warsaw can be assured that both Berlin and Brussels will carefully watch its hands while Trump and the TSI leaders are in town. To walk on the tight rope between Trump and Europe requires a lot of skilful diplomacy. Most recently, this was not necessarily Warsaw’s strength.