Commentary: A delicate moment for the future of European security

This commentary was prepared by the political editor of

The 26th Ministerial Conference of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) took place in Bratislava, Slovakia on 5-6 December. In attendance were the foreign ministers and senior diplomats of the 57 member states - all the countries of Europe and Central Asia, plus the United States and Canada.

This annual diplomatic jamboree is of questionable importance. The absence of the foreign ministers of some of the leading countries, who are represented by their deputies or other senior officials, has now become a habit, which may suggest they have better things to do than to turn up to read a prepared four minute speech.

But some have never missed one. This includes Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. The Russians still hope the OSCE can be the forum that helps Europe deal with the many security challenges ahead, including the tricky business of restarting its relations with the west. The process of rebuilding trust has however only just started.

At OSCE Ministerial meetings the important work is usually done on the margins of the main meeting, and this year was no exception.

Bratislava provided an opportunity for Lavrov to meet the new EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Josep Borrell - five days into his new job. The two men had already met only  two weeks before, but at the time Borrell was the Spanish Foreign Minister, and still High Representative designate. This therefore was the first official contact between the new Commission and Russia. This relationship is going to be important as the discussions on the future of European security evolves.

Borrell had earlier started getting a taste of the politics of the Eastern neighbourhood. He met the foreign minister of the six eastern Partnership countries, later tweeting

Starting my participation at  #OSCEMC19 meeting my 6 #EasternPartnership colleagues. Key political priority for #EU to keep our cooperation high on the strategic agenda and work with all partners, at all level

Regardless of what was discussed in that meeting, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova used it to hand Borrell an unprecedented joint statement on their asspirations for future relations with the EU.   In their statement the three countries called for the creation of a format of   EU + 3,  for sectoral integration in transport, energy and other fields, and to have full access to four freedoms of the EU - free movement of goods, services, capital and the labour.

It is not a coincidence that all the three countries have problems with Russia. All three are looking very carefully at how the European Union will manage its relations with Russia in the future.

In another room, the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus held separate meetings with the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan to discuss the Karabakh conflict. This was more in the way of an exchange of views. The heavy lifting on Karabakh is done by the representatives of Russia, France and the United States - the co-Chair of the so-called Minsk Group (not to be confused with the Minsk process that deals with Ukraine). They also met the foreign ministers, separately and together, after which they issued a statement telling the world what has happened so far, but giving little information as to what will happen in the future, except that there will be another meeting.

read more: Joint Statement by the Heads of Delegation of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair countries

read more: Commenatry: Will Bratislava be a game changer in the Karabakh peace efforts

In the background in Bratislava was the elephant in the room - Ukraine. Since 2014 Ukraine has sucked most of the energy of the OSCE and poisoned to an unprecedented level relations between Russia and the west. Serious work on the Ukraine issue will take place this week in the Normandy format.

In the end, having read their four minute speeches the foreign ministers left Bratislava, and the Slovaks sighed a sigh of relief that their one year chairmanship of the organisation was coming to an end with out a major crisis having erupted under their watch. They will be succeeded by the Albanians (2020) the Swedes (2021) and the Poles (2022).

Despite the good work done by Slovakia, and its foreign minister Miroslav Lajcak, who took the job seriously, credit for this somewhat uneventful year can also be attributed elsewhere.

Behind the scenes, in the corners of the chancellories of Europe, and in cosy meeting rooms of think tanks in Brussels, London, Moscow, Berlin  and elsewhere, diplomats and analysts are with their thinking hats on trying to grapple with the challenge of how to bring about the next chapter of European security, the future of EU - Russia relations, the role of the United States on the European continent, and whether good relations between Russia and the west can be achieved only at the cost of the neighbours in-between.

The OSCE has danced around these issues from the day it was created to take over from the previous cold-war framework the CSCE in December 1994. So far the OSCE has failed to rise to expectations. Bratislava was no exception. The gap in the thinking between Russia and the west is still very wide.  The OSCE is the natural place where the discussion on the future of European security should take place. But critics of the organisation say it needs to refocus its energy and resources on hard core security issues.

There is therefore still a lot of work to be done before any formal process - CSCE  2.0  - can be launched. But one senses that there is an increasing appetite for it, and the time will soon come for the work to start - hopefully in time for a new chapter in European security to be opened by 2025 - the fiftieth anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act. President Putin is throwing a big party in Moscow next year to mark the anniversary of the end of World war II. This may be a good opportunity to signal a new begining.

In the meantime it is important for the work behind the scenes to continue in earnest.

source: This commentary was prepared by the political editor of

main photo: Family Photo of the 26th Ministerial Meeting of the OSCE held in Bratislava 5-6 December 2019 (picture courtesy of OSCE)

second photo: Meeting between the Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the new EU High Representative Josep Borrell in Bratislava on 5 December 2019 (picture courtesy of the Russian Foreign Ministry)

third photo: EU High Representative Josep Borrell greets the foreign minister of the eastern partnership countries at a meeting on the margins of the 26 MOSCE Ministerial Meeting in Bratislava (picture courtesy of the twiter feed of Josep Borrell

fourth photo: Slovak Foreign Minister, Miroslav Lajcak, addresses the final press conference at the end of the OSCE Ministerial Meeting on 6 December in Bratislava. Slovakia chaired the OSCE in 2019 (picture courtesy of OSCE)

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