Croatia, Britain, and the Three Seas Initiative

By Brian Gallagher

By CBR Editor Brian Gallagher

First published in Hrvatski Vjesnik (Australia) 20 October 2021

A recent report has suggested that the UK should be more involved in the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), of which Croatia is a member. Such a move would certainly be in the UK’s interests. It’s worth taking a look the Initiative, and the possibility of British strengthening UK – Croatia relations.

The 3SI was established as a result of a 2014 report by the US think-tank the Atlantic Council, which pointed to the economic and infrastructure disparities, caused by communism, between Western Europe and Central and Eastern European counties. Consequently, Croatia and Poland’s then Presidents Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović and Andrzej Duda launched the Three Seas Initiative in order to help rectify the situation, with the first meeting in 2016 in Dubrovnik. The 3SI looks to intensify cooperation between its members, on energy infrastructure and digital projects. It is not meant to supersede or rival other organisations such as the European Union.  Currently there are 12 members located between the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Seas, primarily ex-Communist states, with Croatia and Slovenia being the only members from the former Yugoslavia. Austria is also a member – which is unsurprising given its investment in these states, and the historic Habsburg links with a number of them, including Croatia.

The members have established the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund which is managed by the Amber Infrastructure Group based in London, with a view to attracting investment in projects to make a profit. In 2020 the United States announced a $1bn investment into the fund. The United States greatly promotes the 3SI, which has bipartisan support. The National Federation of Croatian Americans has also firmly supports US policymaker’s 3SI involvement.

Currently there are 16 3SI Croatian priority projects, according to the 3SI website, including constructing the A5 Motorway and the infrastructure upgrading at the Port of Rijeka.

A recent report, ‘Three Seas Initiative and the Opportunities for Global Britain commissioned by Daniel Kawczynski MP, chairman of the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Poland, looked at Britain and the 3SI. Amongst its research, the authors spoke to all the 3SI ambassadors to the UK, including Croatia’s Igor Pokaz.

The report concluded that given, as its title suggests, that Brexit and the UK policy of establishing a ‘Global Britain’ would mean a role with the organisation, perhaps even with the Initiative’s investment fund.

This makes sense. As the report points out, there is a geopolitical aspect to the organisation. The US sees it as a counter to both Russia and China, hence its backing.  3SI energy projects allow for liquified natural gas to be provided from the US – a clear commercial interest of course – which also helps balance against the increasing role of Russia in energy provision in Europe. It also balances China’s 17+1 project, established to promote business and investment between that state and countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Croatia is a member of 17+1 – its 2019 summit was held in Dubrovnik.

These geopolitical points do accord with UK foreign policy outlook. The UK has issues with Russia of course, and the recent AUKUS agreement, which will see the US and UK providing Australia with the technology to build nuclear submarines, was aimed at China.  As an aside, Australia might also look at a relationship with 3SI. Fellow Pacific democracy Japan is mentioned in the report as being interested in working with the Initiative. Why not Australia? The country has historic links with Europe including of course its own Croatian community.

The UK historically has a good role in much of Central and Eastern Europe, and an involvement in the 3SI would be very appropriate. During the Cold War, the British stood up to communism and the Soviet Union, being the clear European leader in doing so, helping to facilitate their eventual freedom. However, this was not the case with former Yugoslav members Slovenia and Croatia. The UK – with others – indulged the Yugoslav regime to try and make sure Tito would not tilt towards the Soviet Union. To make matters worse, the UK then played a shameful role in the wars in former Yugoslavia, in particular effectively assisting the Belgrade’s Greater Serbia ambitions by its support for an international arms embargo – which helped the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army commit many crimes such as the destruction of Vukovar. There were other problems since, relating to EU accession. Indeed, Daniel Kawczynski himself was the primary sponsor of a 2005 Early Day Motion in Parliament claiming the then UK foreign secretary was not standing up to Austrian threats to veto Turkish EU accession and allowing Austria to ‘promote Croatia’s accession prematurely’. However, the motion only received five signatures.

UK-Croatia relations are far better now, but the UK’s antics in the past have left a legacy in which is it is not as respected or influential in Croatia and other ex-Yugoslav states as it could be. Ironically, in Belgrade, it seems Moscow has more clout than London.

The UK participating in the 3SI could also be used to strengthen relations between Croatia and the UK. It could help dismiss any lingering Yugo-nostalgia amongst policymakers, the UK media, and others by participating in an organisation that has nothing to do with the dismal Yugoslav past, and which has a positive mission. It’s always possible the UK could create mischief for Croatia within 3SI, but given its past failures, and the current Global Britain policy, a much better possibility for the UK exists. A stronger diplomatic, economic and security relationship presents itself, to both countries benefit. Zagreb is no doubt open to this. London should seize the opportunity.

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