Hubs like the Adriatic port of Rijeka in Croatia will benefit from greater transport links to the rest of Europe ©Corbis/Getty Images
Hubs like the Adriatic port of Rijeka in Croatia will benefit from greater transport links to the rest of Europe ©Corbis/Getty Images

The Three Seas Initiative: unblocking the Eastern Bloc

posted by Jax Jacobson
21 June 2019

A project in Eastern Europe to improve north-south transport with new rail, road and tunnel links is gaining traction.

The Three Seas Initiative was launched in 2015, looking to fund and improve networks around the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Seas. Twelve EU states are involved and US president Donald Trump attended the second summit, in 2017 in Warsaw. Its most recent summit, in Ljubljana, Slovenia, earlier this month took another step towards resolving the region’s most pressing transport and connectivity issues.

 Originally, it was a US think tank, the Atlantic Council, that took the reins of the Three Seas Initiative when senior fellow Ian Brzezinski put together a task force, which explored how the region could overcome the legacies of the Soviet era and better integrate its transport and energy systems.

 “If you had a satellite and looked down on Western Europe, you’d see a spider’s web of interconnectivity, of pipelines, waterways, energy grids and roadways,” Brzezinski says. “But in Central and Eastern Europe, it’s barren, with very few East-West corridors. If any, they are Russian pipelines.” 

The reasoning behind the initiative was primarily geopolitical, he says, although it could bring economic advantages. The aim is to raise €500m initially, eventually becoming a €5bn fund. Funding is expected to come largely from EU investment, with private money also sought, including from the United States.

The area covered by the initiative matches some of the EU’s transport connectivity policies, with around €13bn allocated under the European Commission’s Connecting Europe Facility programme. “By adding value to the trans-European transport network… and the objective of completing the core network by 2030, the Three Seas Initiative could have a positive impact on strengthening supply chains in the region and, most importantly, within the EU,” a spokesperson said. 

Brzezinski believes some of the projects will fill gaps between existing infrastructure, including links between pipelines and tunnels linking highways. Improving transport and information ties will lead to a more prosperous Europe, with greater energy security and “increased resilience against malign Russian and increasingly Chinese influence”, he adds.

The initiative focuses on improvements across Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary. These countries are overdue a transport overhaul, says Nick Bailey, at UK-based logistics research firm Transport Intelligence. He points out roads in Eastern Europe haven’t developed in the same way as in Western Europe, which has prioritised routes to major population centres and connections with other roads. Romania, which has no straight motorway between its two largest population hubs, is a good example.

Of the 48 projects under consideration, 23 are transport-related, with the highest priority being the E65 North-South roadway, a planned direct connection between Sweden and Greece, via Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and North Macedonia, linking less developed regions with mainstream international trade.

The Via Carpathia is another major project, connecting Hungary, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia via a 3,000km highway, linking seaports in Klaipeda on Lithuania’s Baltic coast, Thessaloniki on Greece’s Aegean Sea, and the Romanian port of Constanta on the Black Sea. This would build on existing internal transit projects, which will ultimately connect Slovakia through Hungary to Romania. Other roadways are planned, eventually creating a Baltic-Adriatic corridor, with connections through Poland, Austria and Italy and the Baltic states.

Rail projects are also included, with priority given to upgrading and expanding Rail Baltica, linking Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Poland. The 729km railway could carry up to 16 million tonnes of freight and 5 million passengers annually. Due to be completed in 2026, it may connect Estonian capital Tallinn with Finnish capital Helsinki via a 50km underwater tunnel which, if constructed, would be the longest underwater tunnel in the world.

Another planned rail project is the Viking Train route, which currently runs through Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan, and could expand to Turkey, Armenia and Greece.

Automotive parts, white goods and e-commerce are the supply chains most likely to benefit from the projects, suggests Bailey, pointing out the importance for e-commerce of rapid delivery. “Not having that infrastructure on a national level makes it harder for hub-and-spoke companies to operate in an efficient way, because delivery times aren’t predictable,” he adds.

Since the initiative is still in its planning stages, few businesses contacted by SM had considered potential network improvements. But Moreno Fioravanti, secretary general of the European Bicycle Manufacturers Association, is aware. Of the 12 countries involved, nine are home to manufacturers in his association.

“Any initiative that will improve transport will be beneficial for our EU bicycle, e-bikes and components industry,” he says.

And there will be environmental benefits as well as economic ones, with more efficient road transport and opportunities for rail transport reducing the industry’s carbon footprint. The Via Carpathia, for example, would go far to decrease the transportation costs of exporting bikes from Bulgaria, which is a major bicycle manufacturing hub within Europe.

Brzezinski says the Three Seas Initiative hopes to secure a €1bn investment fund, sourced by the private sector, in 2019. Once that is in place, construction work can start apace.

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