“The OSCE is indispensable for maintaining peace and security in Europe”

05.12.2016 - Interview

In an interview with Funke Mediengruppe, Foreign Minister Steinmeier talks about the OSCE Ministerial Council in Hamburg on 8 and 9 December, and about the expectations he has of Russia. Published in the Berliner Morgenpost on 5 December 2016.

The OSCE Ministerial Council will be held in Hamburg this week and will bring together more than 50 Foreign Ministers. Why was the Hanseatic City of Hamburg chosen?

I had good reasons to invite my 56 OSCE counterparts to the Hanseatic City. Hamburg has a long‑standing tradition of being a gateway to the world, and it is a self‑confident and cosmopolitan city. Everyone knows Hamburg. For centuries, Hamburg has stood for global‑mindedness, engaging in an exchange with the world, and a tolerant attitude extending beyond all borders. Hamburg has always warmly welcomed its guests. Just a little over a week ago, our Chinese partners experienced this during the China meets Europe summit meeting that was held in Hamburg.

I think it is essential for large and important summits not to be sealed off behind high walls, but to take place where personal encounters can occur. The city and people of Hamburg can professionally host such major events. That is why Hamburg was our first choice, and I was happy that Olaf Scholz was immediately open to the idea.

In Hamburg, there is much talk about blocked roads and sales losses. Are citizens not seeing the opportunities that such a meeting entails?

Of course, such a meeting requires security measures, and these will create inconveniences and restrictions on movement. Blocked roads, traffic jams, and having your freedom of movement restrained – all that is troublesome. That is why I already now want to apologise to the citizens of Hamburg for the inconvenience caused, and thank them for their understanding.

But I also think this event is a great opportunity for Hamburg. For two days, hundreds of journalists will report from Hamburg on the meeting. Images and new reports from Hamburg will be broadcast to people across the entire OSCE area, from Vancouver to Vladivostok. Everything that the Hanseatic City stands for, its centuries‑old traditions, its values, its role as a bridge between East and West, is reflected in the OSCE and in the objectives of our meeting in Hamburg.

Is the OSCE a suitable forum for resolving major conflicts?

Peace in Europe is once again in jeopardy, for the first time in an entire generation. In Hamburg, people know well what this means from past experience with the division of Germany and of Europe. The OSCE is the only pan‑European organisation that comprises all Eastern and Western European countries as well as the United States and Canada and that can serve as a forum for discussing issues related to Europe’s peace order and security architecture. Even in the age of the Internet and video conferencing, the large challenges and conflicts can only be discussed and overcome if all of us actually get together and sit down at a real conference table.

But haven’t the best days of the OSCE already come and gone?

After 1990, many even considered it to be no longer relevant. Today, in the midst of growing tensions and turbulent events, everyone is grateful that it exists. The OSCE can be proud of its accomplishments in terms of Ostpolitik and the policy of détente during the 1970s, which in Germany were championed by Willy Brandt, Egon Bahr and Hans‑Dietrich Genscher. The Helsinki Final Act of the CSCE was a major accomplishment in European history, the effect of which is felt to this day. It was the beginning of the end of the division of Europe.

Today, after the annexation of Crimea, which has rocked the foundations of Europe’s security architecture, the OSCE is the only remaining forum in which close ties still exist between Eastern and Western Europe. It is trusted by, and has the support of, all sides. Also today, the OSCE is indispensable for maintaining peace and security in Europe. Without it, the conflict in eastern Ukraine might already have spun out of control long ago. The OSCE provides the Special Monitoring Mission that is keeping watch over the ceasefire there. It is the only entity from which we obtain independent reports on the situation in the embattled region. Also in other conflict zones, such as in Transdniestria and Nagorno-Karabakh, the OSCE is between the front lines and performing a mediating role.

The OSCE is a child of the Cold War. Have we returned to the days of the Cold War?

When it was founded, the OSCE was designed to be an organisation through which to overcome the Cold War. Now, we must use it to ensure that no one falls back into old patterns of behaviour. We must not allow permanent alienation to take hold between Eastern and Western Europe. That makes the OSCE more important than ever today. We live in difficult, conflict‑ridden times, an age when conflicting interests between the great powers are reappearing, even though this can hardly be compared to the confrontation between the blocs during the years of the Berlin Wall. Today, the circumstances are entirely different. The fate of the world is no longer determined solely in Washington and Moscow. The world has become more diverse and complex, with many regional actors playing a part and attempting to advance their interests, as we currently see all too well in the terrible and extremely convoluted situation in Syria.

What is important now with regard to Ukraine?

The state of implementation of the Minsk Agreements is anything but satisfactory. In recent months, we have seen much foot‑dragging. The ceasefire is still being violated on a daily basis, and there has been no progress on the big political questions. The sides to the conflict are literally digging in and hunkering down in their trenches. That is why my French counterpart Jean‑Marc Ayrault and I met in Minsk last Tuesday with the Foreign Ministers of Russia and Ukraine, to resume the search for ways to overcome the standstill. At least the sides want to grant the International Committee of the Red Cross access to the political prisoners, to make preparations for a prisoner exchange. I hope that a prisoner exchange can be achieved before Christmas. That would be more than an glimmer of hope.

Would it help to ease the sanctions on Russia?

Russia knows our position, namely that sanctions are not an end in themselves. If and when significant progress has been made on implementation of the Minsk Agreements, then we can think about adapting the sanctions. I would like to see this happen, but we are not there yet – that is unfortunately what our last meeting in Minsk demonstrated.

In your view, has the Crimean peninsula been lost to Russia?

The annexation of Crimea was clearly in violation of international law and dealt a great blow to the foundations of Europe’s peace order, one of the fundamental principles of which is respect for borders. That is why we can’t just carry on with business as usual. Our position is clear: we will not recognise annexed Crimea as having become Russian territory.

Hamburg will again serve as the world’s political stage, when it hosts a meeting of the Heads of State and Government of the G20 – including the new US President Donald Trump. What opportunities does this summit hold?

It is right for Germany to face up to its responsibility – in the context of the G20 and the OSCE. Germany’s economy relies on strong exports, and that is why we need open borders and reliable partners around the globe. We assumed the G20 presidency from China, and we want to maintain a similar focus, including emphasising the urgent need to fight corruption everywhere in the world. In many countries, corruption is a basic evil that threatens not only economic but also political stability.

The world is wondering what to expect from Donald Trump. Do you know more than you did before the election?

We are working to get an idea of what direction America’s foreign policy may take in the future. Yet, as long as formation of the new government has not been completed, much of this is mere speculation. We need to prepare ourselves for a change in American foreign policy. Adjustments in US trade policy are already visible now. The announcement that the incoming administration intends to withdraw from the Trans‑Pacific Partnership (TPP) makes a US foreign policy focus on China all the more urgent. I hope that the new administration – like all its predecessors – will value the transatlantic relationship, not only with Germany, but with all of Europe. Relations between Europe and America are the very foundation of the West. They must be nurtured by both sides.

Do you think the risk that the United States may withdraw from its role as the protective power of Europe is relatively low?

I at least do not believe that the US will actually withdraw from NATO, as is feared by some. What is clear, however, is that America will most likely put in much more concrete terms its demand that Europeans must assume a greater role in guaranteeing their own security.

Mr Steinmeier, in eight weeks you may be elected Federal President. What are you planning to include in your farewell trip as Foreign Minister?

I do think you are mistaken about that. Only a short glance at the world map is enough proof that there is no time for taking a break or conducting farewell ceremonies. Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Libya, and Europe – the list of crises and conflicts that require the undivided attention of German foreign policy is long. We will need to use all our strength, and I will need to remain fully focused, to address these issues. These days in particular, I do not have the liberty of thinking about future tasks.

Mr Steinmeier, many believe that Martin Schulz will be your successor, if he is not selected to run for Chancellor. Does Schulz have what it takes to be Foreign Minister?

On that, I can only repeat what Sigmar Gabriel says: we have a firm road map, and we will stick to it.

The interview was conducted by Jochen Gaugele and Matthias Iken. Reproduced by kind permission of Funke Mediengruppe.

Related content

Top of page