Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna

02.07.2015 - Speech


Secretary General,


I am delighted to have been invited here to the Permanent Council, and to have the opportunity as the future Chairman of the OSCE to speak to you today about the security policy situation in the OSCE area – not only about the situation itself, though, but also about the consequences that it has for the OSCE and thus for the German Chairmanship in 2016.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today Europe is navigating extremely turbulent waters. We must weather storms that come from both the inside and the outside. A security policy crisis is raging in Ukraine that is undoubtedly the most serious since the end of the Cold War. At the same time, many more crises and conflicts are sweeping our immediate and wider neighbourhood, especially in the area from Iraq and Syria across to the Sahel – and they are more numerous, complex and severe that I have seen in my whole political career. I’m sure I’m not the only one; few among us could have imagined these sorts of circumstances even a few years ago.

My intention in saying this is to make clear that this stormy time is a period of testing – for this organisation, the OSCE, and for peace in Europe. In the midst of this test, we have decided to shoulder greater responsibility. We will take the helm of the OSCE in 2016 – to continue the maritime metaphor – and in doing so we want to help it navigate these stormy seas. We know that one cannot promise a successful crossing of such troubled waters. The German Government is well aware that this will be no fair‑weather excursion. I also cannot tell you whether we will arrive in a safe port by the end of next year.


But we all know how much is at stake in Europe. We Germans in particular know how much we owe to this institution and to the CSCE process – on the path, first of all, to détente between East and West, then to ending the Cold War and finally to the reunification of my country. Exactly forty years ago, the Helsinki Final Act was signed and the Finnish President Urho Kekkonen articulated his hopes for the future. He said he had hope that, quote, “a new era in our mutual relations” was dawning and that, quote, “we have set out on a journey through détente to stability and enduring peace”.

We have come a long way on this journey. Today’s storms, including that raging in Ukraine, should not and must not put a stop to that journey! We must not allow all that we have built up in the OSCE over many years to be torn down now – that is, the vision of a peaceful order in Europe that rests on the foundation of dialogue, confidence and security. Dialogue, confidence and security – these are also the principles that will orient our compass when we take the helm of the OSCE in 2016.


The first pillar – you heard it – is dialogue. In Germany’s experience, the CSCE process has always been a dialogue process – even across the deepest political and ideological divides of the Cold War. This dialogue was always laborious and lengthy, but in the end it made a vital contribution to détente between East and West.

I say that because I am convinced we still need this kind of dialogue today, not least in the severe crisis in and around Ukraine. And I am convinced that the OSCE can and must be the platform for this dialogue. Over the decades, the OSCE has grown as a common organisation. It is rooted in mutually agreed basic principles, and it possesses proven instruments of dialogue.

All of these things are what matters today, for I remain certain that there can be no military solution to the Ukraine conflict. The solution must be political. This means the moment of testing is also a moment of diplomacy and dialogue.

In the package of measures adopted in Minsk, we agreed on a “road map” that outlines the political path out of the conflict – a path that those with political responsibility must walk. It’s not a perfect path, but it is the only one we have. The OSCE has a vital role to play in implementation. Primarily, however, the conflict parties need to fulfil the obligations they made in the Minsk agreements.

To put it another way, without a political solution to the Ukraine conflict it is unlikely that we will find our way back onto the path towards a common understanding of the future and the principles of our coexistence. And it is quite clear that our understandings of these things are currently far apart from one another. That is why the dialogue to which I am referring will not be a fair‑weather dialogue, but rather will be contentious. But this makes it all the more important that we speak to one another – about our different perceptions, about the ways we feel threatened and about our conflicting interests. We can and must talk about all of these things – as long as we speak with and not past one another.


There is another important aspect of dialogue that I would like to mention. This dialogue is not a dialogue among governments, but rather a dialogue among people. Right now, when political alienation has increased so much in the OSCE area, civil society connections have become all the more important. This human dimension is laid out in the Helsinki Final Act. We want to strengthen it.

I am speaking, for example, of youth exchanges. We would like to continue the work of Switzerland and Serbia in this area. We also want to – like the Swiss and Serbian Chairmanships – incorporate civil society more extensively into the discussion among States within the OSCE.

I am speaking, secondly, of freedom of the press and freedom of expression, of the independence of the media and the safety of journalists. Times of conflict are often, unfortunately, also times of propaganda and of distorted narratives. The OSCE should set common standards against these things.

I am speaking, thirdly, of the protection of minorities. Europe today is a very, very diverse continent, in the East as well as in the West. Minorities should be protected in modern states so that these states bring societies together rather than dividing them, and we absolutely must not permit minorities to be instrumentalised in conflicts.

This also means that we must combat every form of political extremism, intolerance and discrimination. This concern will also shape the German Chairmanship. As many of you know, combating anti‑Semitism is especially important to us Germans. In the OSCE context, we would like to build on the Berlin Conferences of 2004 and 2014. The terrible attacks in Paris, Brussels and Copenhagen have shown us that anti‑Semitism remains or has even reemerged as a real and dangerous threat – not only to our Jewish citizens but also to our societies as a whole. The struggle against anti‑Semitism must therefore remain our shared concern.

Another OSCE thematic area that the German Chairmanship would like to highlight as a priority is strengthening the rights of women.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The granting of fundamental civil liberties guarantees peace and stability. I am convinced of that, not only because free and democratic societies are much less vulnerable to the virus of extremism, radicalisation and terrorism, but also because we as governments – and I mean all the governments that are gathered in this organisation – are in the end dependent on the trust of our citizens. Only a government that protects basic rights has earned the confidence of the people.

I would like for us to allow a serious dialogue to take place in the circles of the OSCE about how we can better implement existing obligations in this area and how we can strengthen the corresponding OSCE institutions. I am thinking here of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. The ODIHR’s election monitoring in particular has developed into an OSCE trademark that has set standards and earned recognition worldwide. I am also thinking of the High Commissioner on National Minorities and the Representative on Freedom of the Media. We are building on their excellent work and we will work together closely with them.


The path of dialogue leads me to the second pillar of our work in the OSCE: confidence. Let us not deceive ourselves. In the past year and a half, not only has a highly dangerous threat to European security been ignited, but a tremendous amount of confidence has been lost. Being yourselves involved in government, you here in Vienna presumably sense this directly.

And in saying that, we also need to acknowledge why confidence has been shattered. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea violated a fundamental principle of the peaceful order in Europe – the inviolability of borders. Naturally, that has damaged Europe’s security.

Trying to change European borders unilaterally and without any regard for national sovereignty, seven decades after the end of the Second World War – that is unacceptable and cannot be a form of behaviour that occurs among the states in a security community.

And what makes our situation all the more difficult is the fact that, though confidence is quickly shattered, it takes a very, very long time to rebuild. For me it is a rule of thumb of foreign and security policy that you can set off a conflict in 14 days, but truly resolving it will take 14 years and more.

This makes it all the more important that we get started now! Let us strengthen existing elements of confidence‑building, rather than dismantling them further. We should even try to develop more, even though we certainly won’t have finished them by the end of 2016.

Firstly, we need to return to the fundamental principles of cooperative security. Right now, when the Ukraine crisis has caused threatening reflexes from the Cold War to reawaken, I believe it is essential, for example, to strengthen the arms control regimes. Confidence- and security‑building measures, regular military contact and exchange among military and political experts are all an essential part of cooperative security. In the OSCE of all forums, ladies and gentlemen, dialogue on these topics must not be dropped – even if other organisations have stopped discussing them.

Secondly, confidence is only created when we face our common threats together. We need not think far outside the box of the OSCE to recognise such threats: international terrorism, radicalisation, cross‑border drug trafficking and risks in cyberspace are all among them. In all of these areas we could do with more cooperation – more, not less. A great deal of groundwork has been done in the OSCE – by Serbia, by Switzerland, and also by other countries holding the Chairmanship – and we want to build on it. In the area of transnational threats, we want to work together more closely with the OSCE partner countries. We hope that our conference with the Mediterranean partners in Jordan this October will provide fresh impetus for this. I also hope that the negotiations with Iran might spark fresh ideas for the security order in the Middle East.

Thirdly, economic exchange can strengthen confidence in the long term. That is why it is absolutely right for the OSCE as a security organisation to engage more with the connection between economic and security policy issues. “Connectivity”, for example, is one of the essential keywords here. Infrastructure, transportation routes, and border and customs procedures are all vital areas for investment, growth and jobs – but also, and this is important to me, for common security. The promotion of good governance also fits into this area: improving conditions for investment, combating corruption, minimising environmental threats and, most topically, managing cross‑border migration more effectively are all beneficial both economically and in terms of security policy. The OSCE can serve as a forum for experience sharing and should, with its broad membership, also advance the dialogue about what economic governance in our shared area that was acceptable to all and useful for all would look like. Perhaps in this context it would also be helpful to look beyond the borders of the OSCE.


This brings us to the third pillar: security. Without a doubt, the current stormy weather has even undermined these fundamental pillars of the OSCE. The Ukraine crisis has brought military armed conflict right back to our continent. Despite the ceasefire agreement from Minsk, which the OSCE played a major role in facilitating, people are still dying, and we see military actions and violations of the ceasefire every day.

And so we have no option but to consolidate and strengthen those pillars and make them fit to weather storms. The OSCE is and remains a key instrument of conflict prevention and resolution in Europe. This is precisely what it is currently demonstrating in the Ukraine crisis. The OSCE has shown itself to be irreplaceable. I don’t want to even think about where this situation might have got to by now if it hadn’t been for the OSCE, the Special Monitoring Mission, the courage and dedication of the men and women braving the storm there under the aegis of the OSCE. Those people in Ukraine – and all those working for the OSCE in crisis regions, often risking life and limb – they are all performing an outstanding, irreplaceable service for our security. First and foremost, we owe them our thanks for that. But we should not only express our gratitude – we also have a responsibility towards them and must ensure that we provide them with the support they need and deserve to carry out their work safely.


The OCSE and its institutions need to be in a position to actually fulfil their mandates in all conflicts and regions – in Ukraine, and also in the South Caucasus and Moldova. We cannot allow the dangerous tremors that are rippling through the European security order to spread to other regions of our continent. The remaining trouble spots must be resolved on the basis of the agreements that have been made, the OSCE principles and international law.

In doing so we can draw on all existing OSCE formats. We should equip the Conflict Prevention Centre with more capabilities and assets, for early detection and crisis prevention determine the speed and quality of the OSCE’s crisis prevention work. I am convinced that we all share a common interest in strengthening rather than weakening these structures. And in doing so, we should apply the lessons learned from the current mission to Ukraine, and we should likewise take up the suggestions for improvement submitted by the Panel of Eminent Persons.

However, such improvements have two conditions. The first of these is the clear political will of all participants. It is essential for all participating States to cooperate with the OSCE institutions and OSCE field missions reliably and in a spirit of trust. All of these institutions and missions support and assist us, and we should value their contribution to our common security. The second condition will come as little surprise to you: adequate financial resources are needed. I know about the challenges of less than plentiful state funds. But we must provide security for this organisation in these turbulent times, and swift adoption of the budget is just as important and indispensable a part of this as financial support for the participating States.


Ladies and gentlemen,

I have named the three pillars, with all the many components that belong to them. Each one of those building blocks demands a lot of work. Let me conclude by making one thing clear: the first building block must come before the second. Houses are built from the bottom up.

I know that some of you have high expectations for the German Chairmanship. But these are stormy times, and the future is uncertain. For that reason, we should make sure it is clear to all of us that we can only move forward here incrementally – one building block at a time. In my view there are four layers to the task ahead:

First and foremost, this OSCE is a complex multilateral organisation and must be able to function, even and indeed especially in difficult times. This is the first step. An adopted budget is part of that.

The second step is the most acute crisis management. We want to use the OSCE’s set of tools for this – as we are doing currently in Ukraine through the Special Monitoring Mission and the Trilateral Contact Group. If we succeed in making progress with Minsk, the OSCE will be able to build the crucial bridges to resolve the conflict.

Thirdly, in this speech I have described a number of challenges that extend far beyond the acute storm on the horizon. The OSCE will also be needed for those future challenges – I am convinced of this. This, however, will mean making the OSCE itself a forward‑looking organisation that is perhaps more sustainable than it is now. The crisis in Ukraine shows us that the technical prerequisites for difficult missions need to be available.

And finally, fourthly, let us hold on to the spirit of Helsinki, the vision of a Europe of trust and cooperation. I hope that, on the building blocks maintained by the OSCE, that edifice too may one day stand tall once again. We have certainly been further ahead before in our forty‑year history.

Without a doubt, the path there is a very, very long one. But let me borrow a quote from Willy Brandt: “Small steps,” he said, “are better than no steps.” Willy Brandt was himself a trailblazer for the CSCE. He would advice us to take the small steps now, while the large steps are still far off. I look forward to our joint cooperation, to the road that lies ahead, and I hope we will journey along it together. Thank you very much.

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