Międzymorze—between Wishful Thinking and Realpolitik

15. 3. 2017

The Intermarium is a flagship concept of the Law and Justice Party. However, PiS has no monopoly here. What exactly does this concept mean and what arguments support it?

The basic problem with the Intermarium concept is defining its borders. The simplest way of putting it is to say that it contains countries lying along the North-South axis between Germany and Russia. The very name Międzymorze is ambiguous. There is no coincidence in the fact that the Latin version is used in English. Sometimes just the Baltic and the Black Sea, and sometimes also the Adriatic are listed. In the latter version the abbreviation ABC can be used, from the first letters of the names of these seas in Slav languages.

The widest formula embraces the countries from Scandinavia down to Turkey. But if Turkey, then perhaps also Greece? Another problem are the borders of the Intermarium in the east and the west. Should it include the countries of Eastern Europe (Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine)? Does Austria belong to it? To sum it up, this term should be used to name all initiatives and projects involving the North-South axis and encompassing at least a few countries adjoining one of the three seas.

The imprecision of geographical borders results from the extraordinary diversity of the region. The most popular narrower definition of ABC includes all post-communist countries belonging both to the EU and NATO. Most of them are not members of the eurozone (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Poland, Romania, Hungary), but have different feelings about the common currency. Czechia, Poland, and Hungary are skeptical. On the other hand, almost half of the countries in the so-defined Intermarium use the common currency (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Slovenia). Some countries from the “narrow” Intermarium do not belong to the Schengen zone (Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania).

The broader the definition of Intermarium, the greater the level of its internal diversity. In the broadest definition (between the three seas, Russia, and Germany) it contains a numerous group of countries belonging neither to NATO nor the EU (Western Balkans, Eastern Partnership), belonging to NATO, but not to the EU (Turkey, Albania, Montenegro to join NATO shortly), or the other way round (Austria, Finland, Sweden). What these countries have in common, at least on the level of declarations, is their positive attitude to EU accession, with the exception of Belarus. As far as NATO membership is concerned, exceptions are more frequent (Austria, Belarus, Finland, Serbia, Sweden).

The next challenge are the differences of political systems. In this broad formula a significant group of countries has serious problems with democracy. There is also a very wide range of positions on fundamental issues, such as the attitude to Russia or the shape of EU integration (including the German leadership). On the other hand, you can find a majority capable of agreeing on a common position in each of these issues.

As a multilateral and dense network of connections, the Intermarium needs good bilateral relations. And there are some problems with that. It is enough to look at the repeated tensions between Hungary and its neighbors or at the, mildly speaking, imperfect Polish–Lithuanian relations.

A Bit of History

The internal diversity of the Intermarium results from the lack of a common statehood tradition for the whole region. There is no question of a common Intermarium heritage of one empire or a union of states. In the narrow version the common historical denominator could be post-communism, but it is negative and too weak to build the region’s identity on it. On the other hand, we should note (especially in the case of Polish history) the permanent presence of thinking in terms of the Intermarium in foreign policy. The closest to uniting the whole Intermarium area was the Jagiellonian dynasty, which was at the turn of the 16th century ruling over most ABC countries and having access to each of the three seas. The Vasas, with their claims to the Swedish throne, eagerly eyeing Romanian lands and dreaming about a great re-conquest of the Ottoman Balkans, were also thinking in these categories. And then in the 17th century, John III Sobieski unsuccessfully attempted to create an alliance with Sweden and the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, the driving force of the policy of Prince Adam Czartorysky, the leader of Polish political diaspora, was the idea of recreating—with the British, French, and Turkish support—the Commonwealth federated with Bohemia, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Southern Slavs.

Poland returned to the concept of the Intermarium after regaining independence in 1918. It was an attempt at creating a counterweight to Moscow and Berlin. It was often combined with the Promethean idea (the notion of liberating the non-Russian nations of the Soviet Union). It aimed at guaranteeing Poland the position of a major regional power, that is a country independent from the great powers and capable of deciding about the shape of the region without looking to anyone else. It was advocated by many eminent politicians and political scientists, having divergent notions of it and representing very different political groups. The first attempt at implementing the Intermarium concept was the idea of the Baltic Union, intended to include Poland, the Baltic republics, and Finland. But the most important attempt was the concept of the Third Europe, that is not belonging to the Anti-Comintern Pact (Germany, Italy) and having asymmetrical relations with France and Great Britain.

During World War II, the Polish government in exile tried to persuade the countries of the region to create a federated union including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Hungary, and perhaps Romania, and closely cooperating with the Greek-Yugoslav federation. (In 1942, representatives of the governments of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Greece, and Yugoslavia signed a common declaration about establishing a Council for Planning Central and Eastern Europe). All attempts at building the Intermarium in the first half of the 20th century ended in failure. They were thwarted by differences in the positions of particular countries towards Germany and the Soviet Union, insufficient economic ties, the pressure of third parties, and bilateral problems.

The Economy, Stupid!

Despite the serious obstacles and failures, we should not conclude that the idea of the Intermarium is simply a pipedream. We can see in the recent years that cooperation along the North- South axis develops in many areas. The economy is of key importance here. The countries of the “narrow” Intermarium (EU members who joined after 2004) often have common interests within the EU. They showed that in the past (for example, the Union budget, infrastructural and energy projects, the climate package) by taking a joint position on the EU forum. The Visegrad group played an important role in developing this cooperation, establishing the V4+ mechanism addressed to the neighbors in the south and the north.

The development of cooperation along the North-South axis is also justified by the economic dynamics of the countries in the area. Most of them belong to the fastest-growing economies in the EU. It is in this context that the large-scale infrastructural projects stretching from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean should be explained. Via Carpathia assumes creating a transport corridor through development of infrastructure (expressways, motorways) connecting Klaipeda in Lithuania with Mediterranean ports (Thessaloniki, Greece), the Black Sea (Constanta), and Svilengrad on the Bulgarian- Turkish border. The road is to run through Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece. Branches towards Ukraine, Turkey, and Belarus, as well as the ports in Gdynia and Gdańsk, are also planned. In March 2016 in Warsaw representatives of Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Turkey, and Ukraine signed a declaration on Via Carpathia. Bulgaria joined them later. In the Balkans and in Central Europe Via Carpathia crosses the transport route TRACECA, linking the EU with the countries of the Black Sea basin (Moldova, Ukraine, Turkey), the South Caucasus, and Central Asia. In the north, Via Carpathia meets Via Baltica—in part taking shape of the expressway from Warsaw to Tallinn, running from Poland through Lithuania and Latvia to Estonia. It serves the role of the most important road connection between the Baltic countries. Running parallel to Via Baltica is Rail Baltica—the railway line linking Warsaw, Kaunas, Riga, Tallinn, and Helsinki.

In 2003 the railway project Viking Train was inaugurated, connecting the Baltic with the Black Sea. This railway link between the Lithuanian port in Klaipeda and Odessa in Ukraine is of crucial importance. The successive branches of the project connect Klaipeda with Istanbul through Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldova. The Klaipeda port receives railway containers from Scandinavian ports. At the other end, the cargo from Odessa is transported to Istanbul, other Turkish ports, and to Georgian Poti. Transport companies from Finland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan take part in the project. The ongoing cooperation in developing every kind of infrastructure (for example, interconnectors, border crossings, railways, roads) on the North-South axis in bilateral format contributes to the strengthening of the network of connections within the Intermarium.

The economic importance of the Intermarium has been also noticed by the big players. In 2012, the 16+1 initiative was established, involving EU members from the Intermarium accepted after 2004, Western Balkan countries (without Kosovo), and China. Beijing included cooperation with the “16” in its New Silk Road strategy (One Belt, One Road) aimed at large-scale development of infrastructure through Eurasia between China and the EU.

Security and Big Politics

Cooperation within the Intermarium cannot be reduced to the economy. The 16+1 initiative is a good example here. The Chinese assure everyone that economic cooperation is their only aim. But it is worth remembering that everywhere in the world Chinese foreign policy treats the economy as an instrument of promoting Chinese geopolitical interests, in this case building its leverage within the EU.

Summits of Central European presidents have been organized annually since 1994. Their agendas also concern political and security questions. In 2011 and 2014 the US president Barack Obama took part in these meetings. The non-economic aspect of the Intermarium is even more clearly confirmed by the cooperation between the countries of NATO’s eastern flank. In November 2015, on the initiative of Poland and Romania, an informal summit in Bucharest took place and resulted in working out a common position of eastern flank countries before the NATO summit in Warsaw in July 2016. As countries with the greatest military potential within the eastern flank, Poland and Romania are predestined to promote such regional cooperation. The establishment of the Poland-Romania- Turkey triangle in 2012 should be analyzed in this context. Deputy foreign ministers from these countries meet every six months for security consultations. The first agreements on cooperation in this area have been signed.

No Illusions…

The concept of the Intermarium is definitely not wishful thinking. Real interests are behind it. But of crucial importance here is accepting the limitations of this cooperation, resulting from a very large diversity of the region. A vision of the Intermarium as an alternative for the EU and an opposition towards Germany should be regarded as a dangerous illusion, that will not gain support among the countries of the region. Extremely important for intensifying cooperation within the Intermarium is keeping our feet firmly on the ground, avoiding any great geopolitical visions and focusing on specific projects.

The very large diversity increases the role of skillful diplomacy, the ability to build broad coalitions, and to include the Intermarium cooperation in a wider European, Euro-Asiatic, or even global contexts. The question arises if Poland, the greatest Intermarium country lying in its center, wanting to play the role of the promoter of the North-South axis cooperation, possesses all the necessary skills.

The current foreign policy of the Warsaw government prompts us to say “no” to this question. Poland, which calls for backtracking on European integration, has increasingly worse relations with Germany and Ukraine, instrumentally uses Islamophobia (meeting with Sweden’s criticism), and introduces domestic changes (moving away from liberal democracy along the Hungarian model) which raise the alarm in the US, will have a serious problem with fulfilling its Manifest Destiny between the Adriatic, the Baltic, and the Black Sea.

Adam Balcer

is a political scientist, expert in Polish foreign policy. He works as a Project Manager at WiseEUROPA and a National Researcher at the European at Warsaw University.

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