Germany’s OSCE Chairmanship in 2016: Building bridges of cooperation

13.11.2015 - Article

Speaking in the German Bundestag on 12 November 2015, Foreign Minister Steinmeier outlined the aims of the German Chairmanship. Steinmeier said Germany wanted to strengthen the OSCE, focusing on “cooperation rather than confrontation”.

Next year Germany will be taking on the Chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co‑operation in Europe (OSCE) for a year. Speaking in the German Bundestag on Thursday (12 November), Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier outlined the aims of the German Chairmanship. Steinmeier said Germany wanted to strengthen the OSCE, focusing on “cooperation rather than confrontation”.

Press conference at the OSCE Ministerial Council
Press conference at the OSCE Ministerial Council© Photothek/Trutschel

Steinmeier began by asking his audience to bear with him as he quoted from a 40‑year‑old set of Federal Foreign Office minutes in which was written: “Following introductory remarks, H. said that it was important to allow the spirit of Helsinki to play a greater role in our mutual relations. His interlocutor gave a very brief answer: ”Right. We shouldn’t throw anything into the Elbe now.“

So who were the two speakers? Steinmeier soon provided the answer to the mystery. He had been quoting from the minutes of a historic conversation: Helmut Schmidt, then Federal Chancellor, and Erich Honecker, referred to in the minutes as ”H.“, met for the first time on the fringes of the Conference on Security and Co‑operation in Europe (CSCE) in Helsinki in the summer of 1975. A comment made by Federal Chancellor Schmidt on 31 July 1975 shows just how important the conference was to him: ”Here in Helsinki Europe, together with the States of North America, is reaffirming and putting on record a new step towards the stabilization of peace.“ This was the spirit in which he met with Erich Honecker.

Signing of the Helsinki Final Act, 1 August 1975. from left: Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (Federal Republic of Germany), Chairman of the State Council Erich Honecker (German Democratic Republic), US President Gerald Ford, Federal Chancellor Bruno Kr
Signing of the Helsinki Final Act, 1 August 1975© Bundesarchiv

CSCE creates foundation for dialogue in the Cold War

Following lengthy negotiations with all sides, the Helsinki Final Act, which Steinmeier described in his speech as having ”laid the foundation for dialogue and cooperation beyond the rifts of the Cold War“, was signed on 1 August 1975. Steinmeier pointed out that today’s OSCE emerged 25 years ago with the Charter of Paris following on from the Helsinki Final Act. He stressed: ”This OSCE remains the cornerstone of our security architecture in Europe to this day.“

Germany, the Minister went on, would take on the OSCE Chairmanship in 2016 ”in memory of and in tribute to“ the ”great legacy“ brought about by Helmut Schmidt, Willy Brandt, Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Egon Bahr. With an eye to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Foreign Minister Steinmeier said these were again ”turbulent times“. Not least because one of the OSCE participating States had violated one of the Organization’s most important principles: the inviolability of borders.

Steinmeier said even today the legacy of Helsinki implied pushing onward political processes despite all the setbacks. He gave as an example the situation in eastern Ukraine, where the ceasefire has held for over two months now. Steinmeier expressly thanked ”the courageous women and men in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine and the Trilateral Contact Group“, without whom no progress would have been made.

Strengthening the OSCE and overcoming the lack of communication

Steinmeier went on to say that the example of Ukraine proved that dialogue had to be established again and again, despite all the setbacks, in order to overcome the lack of communication. For that reason, he continued, Germany was committed to ”cooperation rather than confrontation“. Discourse was still better than isolation. The German OSCE Chairmanship would focus on these key aspects of the OSCE philosophy. Steinmeier said that was why, under the German Chairmanship, ”we want to strengthen the OSCE’s instruments and discussion forums“.

Foreign Minister Steinmeier and OSCE Secretary General Zannier
Foreign Minister Steinmeier and OSCE Secretary General Zannier© Federal Foreign Office

During its Chairmanship, Germany would try, the Minister said, to offer all participating States opportunities for dialogue. This would concentrate among other things on conventional arms control and confidence-building measures. Trust developed through cooperation on very concrete topics, Steinmeier said.

At the close of his speech, for which OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier was in the audience, Foreign Minister Steinmeier admitted that there were high expectations of Germany’s OSCE Chairmanship. In ”turbulent times“, Steinmeier said, no one could predict what and how much might be achieved. But Germany was committed to this task in the ”spirit of Helsinki“. Even back then, in the midst of the Cold War, rapprochement began with many small concrete steps. Steinmeier made it clear that Germany’s OSCE Chairmanship would follow this example.

In the final sentence of his speech, Steinmeier once again issued an urgent appeal to the members of the Bundestag: ”Let us work with and in the OSCE for a more peaceful future!“

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