The North-South Axis

The development of relations with the countries of “Greater” Central Europe should be a strategic goal for Warsaw in the coming decades.

At the beginning of 21st century, Europe witnessed the emergence of a new geopolitical North-South Axis, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and the Adriatic. The axis was to be defined as a network of complex economic and political relations and interdependencies within “Greater” Central Europe, consisting of the Baltic republics, the Visegrád Group, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia and post-accession Croatia (in 2013), as well as its relations with the Scandinavian states: Denmark, Finland and especially Sweden. The axis is an instrument of cooperation, rather than a regional organization. Its efficiency can be considerably enhanced if the cooperation is tightened through a common strategic platform for coordinating foreign policy and modernization.

Greater Central Europe

Despite the stark differences between the states of Greater Central Europe, it is still characterized by considerable similarities in the social, political and economic spheres, as well as the overlapping long-term strategic interests and challenges which these countries are facing. The region consists of several subregions, interconnected by linchpin states, and bears mediumterm potential for expansion in the event of the Western Balkan nations joining the European Union as member states; as well as to the improvement of internal cohesion, provided that the differences between the states in the region are softened.

The basic shared geopolitical challenge for the region is the issue of full integration within the EU. This is understood as reaching the EU average in GDP per capita and having a strong modern economy in terms of innovation and the efficiency of energy sector. The dynamic development observed so far is an indicator that in the following two decades, Greater Central Europe may become a driving force of economic growth in the EU. But one may equally well predict that only some of the states in the region will be successful, whereas the rest will linger in uncertainty. Still, one must bear in mind that the EU would prefer to see a success of the whole Central Europe.

Unfortunately, in the long run, instead of catching up with the West after 2030, Central Europe may also end up again on the periphery, threatened with a new sort of provincialism. A serious long-term threat can be seen in the negative demographic prospects, which are much worse than in Western Europe. Shrinking populations and aging societies, together with emigration, may stop further economic development; as a result the civilizational gap between Western and Central parts of the continent will grow again, instead of decreasing.

Central Europe’s deteriorating position within the EU might not only be a consequence of economic backwardness, when compared with the most developed European states, but also a result of the prospect of becoming a borderland with an area affected by instability and civilizational backwardness: Eastern Europe, Russia and Turkey.

Similarities and challenges give rise to convergent interests, which in recent years have brought about significantly intensified cooperation among states within Greater Central Europe. This can be seen in ad hoc coalitions created around crucial issues on the EU agenda, and formulated prior to EU summits, as well as informal groups supporting particular ideas. These vital issues were: cohesion policy, climate package, economic issues within the EU, neighbourhood and enlargement policy, energy sector and infrastructure. The Visegrád Group has become the key coordinating mechanism for cooperation within Greater Central Europe; a Visegrád Plus mechanism has been established even, aimed at organizing meetings with third partners. It was Poland, the largest country on the North-South Axis, that most actively promoted the supraregional coalition.

Yet, serious internal differences can be observed within Greater Central Europe, constituting obstacles for intensified cooperation. As the states in the region are small or medium-sized, they tend to be more interested in cooperation with larger EU states rather than with their neighbours. On the other hand, it is frequently the case that they are particularly sensitive when it comes to sovereignty. This in turn prevents them from accepting one of the regional states as a leader. Another important issue is the disparity in various economic indicators, including the level of innovation, GDP per capita, corruption level, share of agriculture in the economy or pace of economic growth.

Scandinavia, or the Source of Modernization

The vision of a North-South Axis between Central Europe and Scandinavian countries seems unrealistic. Within the EU, Scandinavian states take a completely different position than Central European countries on such fundamental issues as climate change or the EU budget. However, an intensification of cooperation within Greater Central Europe, because of its location on the North-South Axis, could significantly enhance the nature of relations between this region and the Scandinavian states, including Denmark, Finland and Sweden. The best evidence of the existence of geographic determinants between Scandinavia and the region is the planned development of transport infrastructure on the North-South Axis in Central Europe, based above all on the development of Baltic ports in Poland and direct participation of Scandinavian states in some infrastructural projects.

Sweden, and to a lesser degree Finland and Denmark, are key economic and political partners for the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania). They are also important partners for Poland. Relations between Scandinavia and the other Visegrád Group states, as well as Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia, are significantly weaker. However, Scandinavian states—in particular Sweden because of its Balkan émigré community— are considerably involved in stabilization policy in the Western Balkans. This includes participation in missions and diplomatic efforts. Meanwhile, the region constitutes a potential part of Greater Central Europe.

Undoubtedly, the strongest correlation can be observed between Central Europe and Sweden. Swedish foreign policy is the most similar to the Central European mainstream among all EU member states. However, the key importance of cooperation with Scandinavian states is connected with the world-leading innovativeness of their economies, as well as the role of renewable energy sources. Scandinavia is thus a major source of inspiration and knowhow for the next wave of modernization in the region.

Poland: a Key to the Region

Poland has a unique geopolitical position within the EU as the sixth country in terms of demographic and economic potential (GDP per capita). It is an important partner for Germany, the largest EU state, and at the same time the crucial state in Greater Central Europe, strongly connected with Sweden. All these factors predestine Poland to play the key role of a link on the North-South Axis. Also, Polish foreign policy, because of Poland’s position, should be based on the idea of “playing on two pianos.” Poland should develop relations with the largest EU states, in particular with Germany, and at the same time it should tighten cooperation on the North-South Axis. Such a parallel policy should result aim at a complementary nature of these two directions, that is:

  • On the one hand, strengthening Poland’s position within the North-South Axis, where Poland would be the leading party behind regional cooperation because of its established position among the top EU players.
  • Strengthening the position of Poland among the six largest EU states owing to Warsaw’s capability for coalition building on particular issues with the states located in Greater Central Europe and Scandinavian states, especially with Sweden.

Nevertheless, on the regional level, Poland has a unique demographic and economic potential, and therefore accepting a possible leading regional role is a controversial matter. It requires intense diplomatic efforts and assertive persuasion, a clear and long-term strategy based on specific cooperation proposals, considerably increased level of Poland’s economic engagement with the regional states, as well as Poland’s strong position within the EU, based on its close relations with Germany. Poland’s relations with the states of Greater Central Europe are surely of lesser importance than with Germany, or to a smaller degree with France. Still, the region is crucial for Poland’s position within the EU. Poland’s belonging to Greater Central Europe, in terms of geography, common interests and challenges, will be affected strongly by the success or failure of its modernization. This in turn will influence its position among the EU states. Simultaneously, because of Poland’s potential among Central European states, the chosen path of development will make an impact on the whole region.

If cooperation on the North-South Axis is intensified, Poland will inevitably become its lifeblood because of its potential, thus boosting its position among the largest EU states. The region of Greater Central Europe is also vital for Poland due to the fact that in no other part of the world does it have such considerable—and potentially increasing—economic or political influence. Poland’s centre of gravity is to be found in its South (Silesia and western part of Lesser Poland). It is—excluding Warsaw—the most developed and most densely populated part of the country with the best infrastructure. However, developing infrastructure in the North-South Axis will also crucially impact the future of the Tri-City area (Gdańsk, Gdynia, Sopot) and Szczecin. The North- South Axis is of growing importance for Poland also as a result of economic processes which are leading to changes in the geography of GDP output in Germany, its major economic partner. Currently, German lands along the Danube have been experiencing a substantially faster pace of economic growth than the rest of Germany.

North-South Axis within the EU should be approached by Poland in a broader context by looking beyond the EU and extending to relations with Turkey and the Arab world, and even in a global dimension. Intensified relations with the Islamic world are of crucial importance for strengthening Poland’s role within the EU—also with a view to these regions’ growing meaning in the framework of a Common Foreign and Security Policy.

If you consider the progress of globalization and the world’s centre of gravity moving towards the Pacific, it is really critical for Poland to develop its maritime trade. According to EU estimates, 90% of the European Union’s trade with the rest of the world is conducted by sea. Consequently, Poland has a good opportunity to stimulate its relations with non-European states due to its considerable access to the sea and several potentially large seaports. But to make use of this potential, infrastructure must be developed, including railways and motorways, on the North-South Axis, i. e. on the line that connects Pomerania-Warsaw-Silesia. Also, ports located on the Adriatic Sea, like Rijeka and Trieste, need to be used more extensively. From the perspective of Southern Poland, these ports are closer than the Polish ones. Trieste’s turnover is only slightly smaller than the sum for all Polish ports combined.

The Future of the North-South Axis

Greater Central Europe’s full emergence on the EU scene as a vital geopolitical actor depends on the approach adopted by the states of the region to this idea. The two crucial questions here are: will a sense of common interest outweigh differences or will the differences take over? Is there a compromise to be found with respect to the diverse interests and potentials? The best guarantee to alleviate the differences among those states will be:

  • To tighten multilateral cooperation, as a result of which the minority states could adjust to the stance taken by the majority of states on a particular issue, influencing the first group by means of a “stick and carrot” approach; either being marginalized or taking part in a wide and more effective coalition on the international scene;

  • To adopt a common region-wide, positive and ambitious modernization agenda under an EU framework;
  • To boost coordination of foreign policy through tighter cooperation on several key issues.

A platform which could bring together countries with so different level of development level as Bulgaria—and in the future also Kosovo—and Slovenia, would be a common fundamental goal unifying the whole region for the purpose of modernization and catching up with the West. There, the most developed states and the countries leading in particular domains could act as role-models in the region as well as a source of inspiration for the remaining Central European states, assisting their neighbours in their modernization efforts. In the case of Poland, our key knowhow assets should be the reform of local government and efficiency in spending European funds.

For the idea of modernization to bloom, a fundamental change is required in the way the states in the region approach their membership in the EU in the economic sphere. The EU should be treated not so much as a source of funding for farmers or infrastructure projects but more as a guarantor of the development of economic innovation, as well as modernization of the energy sector. If the whole region of Central Europe undertakes the necessary efforts towards modernization, Sweden, and later other Scandinavian states, may become key partners for the success of this civilizational leap. Then, the North-South Axis would acquire optimum efficiency as an instrument of cooperation

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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