A sunny Greek island beckons for Europe’s security planners

Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis is a strong believer in the benign powers of European Union diplomacy – and in the seductive qualities of sunny Greek islands. This explains why, as the current chairperson of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), she is proposing that all 56 OSCE countries send their foreign ministers to a Greek island in July for some serious but informal talks on European security.

“We’d have more than 24 hours of really open talks, without any restrictions,” she told me enthusiastically this morning in Brussels.

It sounds like a winner. Who’d say no to a day or two on a Greek island just before the summer rush?

The OSCE’s origins lie in the detente era of the 1970s, when western countries were interested in securing commitments from the Soviet Union on good international behaviour and observance of human rights. In return, Moscow wanted recognition of Europe’s post-1945 borders and the legitimacy of the communist regimes of eastern Europe. At the time, it was a sensible, practical bargain – and in the longer run, the human rights provisions worked to the advantage of the western democracies.

These days the OSCE deals with an enormous range of issues, from crisis management to protection of minority rights, and it has been caught up in the thick of things in Georgia after the war with Russia in August. One has to wonder what will happen if Bakoyannis’s proposal goes ahead and the Russian and Georgian foreign ministers get separated from the pack and find themselves alone in a taverna on a remote Greek isle.

Bakoyannis got the idea for her proposal from the informal meetings that EU foreign ministers hold twice a year, usually in spring and late summer. At these events, deliberately staged in beautiful settings to create the right mood for a bit of relaxed brainstorming, ministers chew over topics that do not always get a great deal of attention at their regular monthly sessions.

Last September, in the medieval papal French city of Avignon, for example, they had a good think about long-term EU-US relations. In a couple of weeks they’re off to a castle at Hluboká nad Vltavou in the Czech Republic to talk about Afghanistan and the western Balkans.

The point of an informal OSCE meeting would be to try to build on the modest but measurable improvement in the international atmosphere since Barack Obama took over as US president. The OSCE operates by consensus, so it will never take decisions that clash with the interests of Russia or any other member-state. It would be futile to expect a summer gathering on a Greek island to solve Europe’s immediate security problems.

But as Bakoyannis says, “There’s another spirit in the air. The new American administration is reaching out. The Russian Federation is reacting positively to that. We have to build on this momentum.”