As chairmanship revolves to Austria, we listened to what Foreign Minister Kurz sees as the biggest challenges

I arrived unreasonably early on a crisp, sunny day mid-January at the Hofburg’s modest corner entrance for the 1,127th Special Meeting of the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). For Vienna, this was no ordinary Special Meeting:  Rising political star and Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz was due to take over the OSCE Chair on Austria’s behalf for the next 12 months.  The OSCE’s 57 member states straddle the unstable tectonic plate between East and West. It is perhaps one of the world’s most valuable if underrated weapons for peace.

Radical steps?

The Neuer Saal was already tightly packed.  Every national delegate had a clearly marked place round the elongated horseshoe facing the head table and privileged staffers had reserved seats against the wall. The rest of us stood as best we could. “That’s the problem when you’re no longer Chair,” a German muttered. “You don’t even get a chair.” (Germany chaired in 2016.)

Bang on the stroke of 10:00, the new Chairperson in Office Sebastian Kurz entered with his senior officers and the meeting began.  No fuss, no delays, all very smooth – Vienna has been doing this since the Congress of 1814.

Kurz laid out his year’s agenda. Cool and suave at 31, he has a pleasantly fluid way of making a prepared text seem spontaneous, with the rough-edged remains of a cold adding gravitas.  The main thrust of his priorities had been aired in interviews all week: focus on the Ukraine, combatting the spread of radicalization, and Austria’s geographical and political specialities as a bridge-builder between East and West. He thanked Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier for the good transition and then allowed himself a wry smile: “If we can get the 2017 budget settled quickly that will make life easier for the Chair. (pause) And for all of us.” Steinmeier had been admirably punctual, getting his 2016 budget approved by December  31, 2015.

In the press conference that followed an hour later, Kurz filled in some of the gaps with his personal perspective. His generation had grown up assuming that armed conflict would – could! – never reappear in our part of Europe. And now the old hostile blocs were re-emerging; there’s a shooting war in Ukraine (a corner of old Austria), which he visited in early January, now causing daily human misery.  And the out-of-region battle with ISIS in Iraq, Syria and Libya was being re-imported into our everyday lives.

Here Kurz presented his trump card,
Prof. Peter Neumann, a crisply impressive German academic who heads up the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) in London. Neumann will be the Kurz’s point man for policy dealing with radicalised fighters returning to their European home countries. This is a smart appointment, also bringing Kurz valuable help in the looming Austrian domestic battle on how to handle the so-called “Gefährer” (the “dangerous ones”), those ticking time bombs who were known to authorities and yet went on to create mayhem in Paris, Brussels, Berlin, etc.

Business as usual

Kurz closed to the regular drumbeat of OSCE reality: It is not easy, the organization works by consensus, it has no weapons and no mandate to impose sanctions, progress is small step by small step. And often almost invisible.  As Secretary General Lamberto Zannier ruefully remarked at an earlier briefing, “If we get it right no one notices. If we don’t, we get blamed.”

Among the staffers in the spacious coffee lounge, you sense how the OSCE really functions.  The big formal meetings with the somber delegates behind their national markers are only the tip of the iceberg.  The scattered small-table seating filled rapidly with animated groups of twos and threes. After the obligatory “Happy New Year!” other scraps remain hanging in the air: “before Tuesday…”, “Veronika suggested…”., “get the Russians to…”

So 2017 seems to have gotten off to a flying start in that quiet Vienna backstreet behind the glitzy fashion vendors of the Kohlmarkt.  These are the movers who work to turn positive policy into local realities, one small step at a time.

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English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.