"Culture of dialogue - dialogue of culture" - Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the opening event of the 2016 German Chairmanship of the OSCE in the Federal Foreign Office

Jan 12, 2016

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me extend a warm welcome to you here at the Federal Foreign Office at the beginning of this year’s German Chairmanship of the OSCE.

With OSCE headquarters in Vienna, it is fitting that we started the evening with a piece by Mozart to bring a little Viennese flair to Berlin. We have just heard a fast, youthful, tempestuous Mozart. The past year was similarly tempestuous but unfortunately much less harmonious than Mozart’s wonderful music.

We will probably all remember 2015 as the year with the dreadful terrorist attacks in Paris, in Istanbul, the year with the ongoing war in Syria, with the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled war, violence and persecution to come to Europe and to us here in Germany.

There is no denying that there isn’t much in the way of good news also at the start of the new year. I am thinking here of the escalation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, of North Korea. But I am convinced that glimmers of hope remain. What I mean are the signs that we have succeeded in at least moving closer to a solution in some of the international conflicts which have been occupying us for years, some even for decades. This has been achieved by patient dialogue and by recognising the need to cooperate.

Let me just mention here the agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme last July, the moves towards a diplomatic solution to the war in Syria with the Vienna negotiations since October 2015 or bringing the largely successful albeit fragile calm to the fighting in eastern Ukraine since last September.

In all these conflicts, Germany shouldered responsibility and advocated giving diplomacy time to develop sustainable compromises and for these to be accepted.

With the Chairmanship of the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co‑operation in Europe, Germany will this year take on more responsibility, responsibility for peace and security in an area incorporating 57 countries in three continents stretching from the United States and Canada through Europe with Russia and Turkey all the way to Central Asia.

There are two reasons why we are shouldering this responsibility.

Firstly, the OSCE plays a key role as a forum for dialogue and joint endeavours to resolve conflict - and not just the Ukraine conflict. The OSCE can also be the forum for agreement on re‑establishing and strengthening the fundamental underlying rules for Europe’s security and the instruments for cooperation in Europe in the long term. This is why we have given Germany’s OSCE Chairmanship in 2016 the motto “Renewing dialogue, rebuilding trust, restoring security”.

The second reason we were keen to take on this responsibility is that particularly we Germans owe a great deal to the OSCE and its predecessor, the Conference on Security and Co‑operation in Europe. With the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, the CSCE reached an understanding between East and West on how conflict should be avoided by confidence‑building and transparency or conflict defused using the tools of dialogue.

For us Germans, this process was of very tangible significance. At the political level, because Helsinki was the first time the two German states took part in an international conference together and by signing the Final Act took another step on the road to normalising their relations. At the human level, because in Helsinki what the two German states had previously agreed in long negotiations was now reaffirmed internationally: facilitating travel, family contacts and exchange in science and culture across the Iron Curtain. This meant a step could be taken to overcome the political and human divides.

We benefit from this lesson to this day, also with our OSCE Chairmanship in mind:

Military conflict, crises and political disputes are difficult to overcome. What is even more difficult to overcome is however hatred which has taken root, distrust and alienation.

We learn also a second lesson here and I say this given the current crisis regions. No matter where or when it becomes difficult or even seems impossible to talk to each other at the political level, we should pay special attention to nurturing and strengthening cultural, scientific and social contacts.

During our Chairmanship, we thus want to do more than maintain diplomatic channels and step up political dialogue. We want to re‑inject the spirit of Helsinki into these tempestuous times - particularly those parts of the Helsinki Final Act which have been forgotten and are today somewhat neglected, the spirit in which the participating States back then reached concrete agreements on cultural exchange and person‑to‑person encounters.

As we read in the Helsinki Final Act, “cultural exchanges and co‑operation contribute to a better comprehension among people and among peoples, and thus promote a lasting understanding among States”.

It is in precisely this spirit, ladies and gentlemen, that culture, music and literature are to play a key role this evening as we mark the start of Germany’s 2016 Chairmanship of the OSCE. And not just this evening! I am certain that those who know more about the literature and the music, the films and the cultural heritage of Europe are going to understand more about the dreams and the traumas of our partners and friends. It is they, I hope, who can better understand the dark sides of our continent and together move to the brighter sides. It is they who can, and this is part of it, move closer to better celebrate these bright sides.

Let me just mention one example of many as I have just caught sight of the person involved. Uli Schreiber, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung last year wrote the following about the literature festival in Odessa: “This festival, supported by the Federal Foreign Office, is going to change Ukraine”. Another journalist described it as a necessary, albeit insufficient step towards European understanding.

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Here, too, we are taking up a fine tradition of the CSCE and it is one we want to continue. After the milestone that was Helsinki in 1975, agreement was reached for example on increased contacts between publishing houses and on promoting the translation of works “in the sphere of literature and other fields of cultural activity”, particularly, and I quote, in “less widely‑spoken languages”.

The ability of literature and music to build confidence and bring people together and the social power of culture as a whole may not have been completely clear to some of the government representatives when they signed the Final Act.

It was above all culture professionals, artists and intellectuals in eastern European countries who were vehemently calling for the very rights that their Governments had signed up to in black and white in Helsinki.

Almost exactly 40 years ago in February 1976, the arrest of the rock band Plastic People of the Universe led to a wave of outrage amongst artists and intellectuals, as well as amongst workers and employees in Czechoslovakia and further afield.

In their protests they invoked the freedom of opinion guaranteed to them just a year before in the Helsinki Final Act. The civil rights movement Charter 77 emerged as a platform for this protest and soon inspired similar movements in many other eastern European countries and also in the Soviet Union.

Only on rare occasions has freedom of opinion as the corner stone of freedom of political debate, of science and the arts been defended so vehemently and with such far‑reaching consequences as the basis of free, argumentative and forward-looking societies as it was with Charter 77.

And today? Today the freedom of the media, art and culture which formed the basis of protest and change in many countries of eastern Europe are once again threatened in many places.

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Ladies and gentlemen,

The OSCE stands for the vision of a diverse, open cultural area “from Vancouver to Vladivostok”. Before many others, the OSCE recognised and emphasised the essential contribution of our common European culture and our shared values to overcoming the division of our continent in the Charter of Paris for a new Europe.

Back then, we commited to “creative freedom and to the protection and promotion of our cultural and spiritual heritage, in all its richness and diversity”. We want to take this up during our OSCE Chairmanship. Europe is the continent of many voices and diversity. And it is only through the very different contributions to its cultural life that it takes on its familiar form, its very identity.

And that is precisely what we will be looking at in a moment in our discussion. Andrei Pleșu stands like almost no other for Europe’s process of growing together politically and culturally since 1989, for its unity in diversity. Yet he pointed out with great clarity and vision even ten years ago that the tearing down of the Iron Curtain has not simply made real the hopes of a shared European house but threatens to foster or even has fostered new tensions and misunderstandings.

Katja Petrowskaja and Nino Haratischwili represent a different dimension of this shared history and the shared histories of our continent. In their wonderful books, they showed us just how closely weaved memories are between Tbilisi and Lviv, between St Petersburg and Berlin and how carefully we need to handle these connecting lines.

I am delighted to be able to welcome you to the panel in just a moment.

And let me also welcome the musicians of the Asasello Quartet who are playing for us today. Just like our two writers, you are part of a generation in which crossing borders and freedom of exchange have almost become the norm. You spent your childhood and youth in Kyiv or Tbilisi, in Omsk, in the Finnish town of Kuopio, in Helsinki, in Zabrze in southern Poland or in Basle. Today you are living and working in Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne or somewhere in between. I am delighted you are here today. After all, what is true of Europe is also true of our country: different backgrounds breed a brighter shared future!

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That is certainly our hope. But we know how fragile this hope is. We know how fragile our security architecture is and how precious peace on our continent. So let’s set to work together!

Renewing dialogue, rebuilding trust, restoring security - that is to be our focus in the coming year. And let me now invite you to enjoy the music and the discussion - brought to us by artists and thinkers who are breathing life into this motto.

Thank you very much.

© GermanyUN