“A united Europe can be a magnet. Alone, the member states are little more than iron particles in the world of tomorrow!” These were the words of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier after the meeting with Polish and French counterparts in Berlin at the end of August.
In the world of globalisation, European Union, which is the biggest trade bloc in the world, is able play a significant role but is has to be united. Although, the EU is facing many different crises (for instance, refugee and migrant crisis, a fragile economy and tense relations with Moscow) which are threatening a closer European integration. In fact, recent years have shown the actual division of EU while facing a number of crises. Nonetheless, the only solution to the problem should be more cooperation and solidarity between the EU member states.
The European Union recognises that there are many different informal groups of closer cooperation such as: Scandinavian countries, Baltic countries, The Franco-German “motor”, The Weimar Triangle, Visegrad Group etc. One of them is “The Three Seas Initiative”, which was established last year in New York on the sidelines of the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. The initiative includes 12 European Union Member States between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas (BABS): Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
With the exception of Austria, they all share a common communist past and the transition from one-party system to multiparty democracies. The region constitute 28% of the EU’s territory and 22% of its population but it makes only 10% of the EU’s GDP. The reality is that the nominal GDP per capita of the 12 countries is 14 750 €, which is only about 51% of the average GDP per capita in the EU. Clearly, there are big differences in economic development between these 12 countries, such as Austria on the one hand, and Romania and Bulgaria on the other. This shows us that stronger cooperation between BABS countries is crucial in order to enhance the economic growth of these countries and close the gap in GDP in the next decades between the Western and the Eastern parts of the EU.
During the last summit of heads of state and officials from 12 countries in Dubrovnik (Croatia) at the end of August, it was stressed that closer cooperation is necessary especially in the fields of infrastructure (transportation), energy, digital communication and economic sectors. The fact is that the majority of efforts after the Fall of the Berlin Wall were undertaken to connect Eastern and Western Europe, not Northern and Southern areas. Therefore, it is no surprise that during the summit in Dubrovnik, Polish President Andrzej Duda emphasized that the heart of the cooperation in BABS region is the creation of a genuine North-South European axis.
In the field of energy, most of the above-listed 12 countries are highly dependent on Russian gas supplies with the exception of Slovenia which imports less than 50% of gas from Russia. The rest comes from Austria, Algeria and Italy. But the problem is that there is no pipeline going in the South-North direction which would enable an alternative route for gas supplies to Central Europe from other countries than Russia. Therefore, the projects like construction of the LNG terminal on a Croatian island of Krk are the issues of great importance. Its completion would open an alternative route for transporting gas to central Europe and would reduce EU dependence on Russian gas and secure a stable supply of gas across the Central Europe. After its completion the region would get a new corridor for gas supply connecting LNG terminals between Adriatic and Baltic Sea (Poland).
From the perspective of Slovenia, another important field of interest is a development of Trans-European networks and infrastructure project in the transport. For instance, Slovenian “Port of Koper” is not only the biggest and most important port in the country, but also the main export/import port of Austria and Hungary. It is essential for Slovakia and the Czech Republic as well. The highway network already exists, but there is a big issue regarding the railway connection. Between Koper (Port of Koper) and Divača (mainland) there is a 50 km section with only one rail, which means that only 72 trains can use this rail per day and that allows a maximum of 9 million tons of cargo per year. Recently, the government made the decision to build an additional rail, but did not set the exact deadline. Besides, it is not clear who and under which circumstances would finance the project, which is not only of importance for Slovenia but also for other Central European countries. One of the speakers at the Dubrovnik conference was the representative of China, who stressed that developing a European north-south corridor, based on Adriatic and Baltic sea ports is compatible with the Silk Road strategy of China. China perceives the BABS-region as a valuable opportunity for its companies, which want to become the main players in various projects concerning ports.
By expanding the existing cooperation in energy, transportation and economic sectors Central and Eastern Europe will become more competitive, successful and safe. All in all, only the strong countries can play an important and constructive role within the EU.
As mentioned before, with the exception of Austria, all the BABS-countries share the same communist past and the same process of transition into parliamentary democracies. Nevertheless, it has to be pointed out, that they do not form one solid political bloc. The last financial crisis, the migrant and refugee crisis proved how different political positions and reactions could be. In particular, divisions over taking in refugees were brought to the fore. Some countries, such as Austria, Slovenia and Croatia, on the Western Balkan route were ready to accept the EU refugee relocation plan. On the other hand, Visegrad countries, unwilling to take in refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, rejected the plan entirely. The V4 countries were exposed to harsh criticism and accusations especially from the older EU members. The dispute with dominant leader of Europe, Chancellor Merkel, was settled down during the last informal EU Summit in Bratislava. Merkel was ready to accept their arguments and a new principle of flexible solidarity was introduced. Flexible solidarity takes into account the “potential and experience” of each member state when deciding on the number of the refugees, possible to accept. As an example of “flexible solidarity” we could mention a bilateral project between Austria and Slovakia. In the city of Gabčikovo, Slovakia is providing accommodation and food to Syrian refugees, who have applied for refugee status in Austria.
The words borrowed of the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker would constitute the conclusion: “Solidarity must come from the heart. It cannot be forced!”
Igor Jurič is a journalist at TV Slovenija, national public broadcasting organization.