1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Veteran EU diplomat named to top OSCE post

December 4, 2020

EU diplomat Helga Schmid is the new secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. She has a record of negotiating behind the scenes, and is known for her perseverance and sharp instincts.

Helga Schmid gestures as she speaks
OSCE Secretary-General Helga Schmid is a career diplomatImage: picture-alliance/dpa/telam/G. Luciana

Helga Schmid is not well known in Germany. The 59-year-old career diplomat spent the last four years in Brussels as the influential secretary-general of the European External Action Service, the EEAS.

But she was also one of the chief architects of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers , when she proved to have excellent negotiating skills. 

Schmid also played a special role in mediating between the European Union and Russia during the international crisis surrounding events in Ukraine in 2013/14.

F-word affair 

In both cases, the EU was pitted against the US, with former President Barack Obama insisting on a tough line against Tehran and Moscow, while the EU was more willing to compromise.

In early 2014, Schmid experienced a brief moment in the international spotlight in this context. The recording of a phone call was made public on YouTube and she could be heard telling Jan Tombinski, then EU ambassador to Kyiv: "The Americans are going around saying that we are too soft and that they are stronger and want to go for sanctions (...) It is really quite unfair to be putting us on the spot like that." 

Purportedly this led Victoria Nuland, the State Department's former top diplomat for Europe, to say the infamous words "F*** the EU" in a call with the US ambassador in Kyiv.

Top US diplomat 'sorry' for disparaging EU

This ruffled feathers and led to weeks of diplomatic back and forth across the Atlantic. It also revealed how the EU and the US had a different approach to diplomacy, even before Donald Trump took office in 2016.

Schmid was the German Embassy's spokeswoman in Washington during the early 1990s, before taking senior roles at the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin.

Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer went out of his way to praise her for helping uncover the Nazi past of several civil servants who still worked in the German Foreign Ministry after World War II.

As the new secretary-general of the OSCE, Schmid will again have to prove her skills in crisis management.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which spans 57 countries including the US and Russia, is itself in crisis. At the opening session of the organization this week, its outgoing chairperson, Edi Rama, spoke of a Cold War atmosphere among members. 

South Caucasus propaganda war

This year, the OSCE has been faced with upheavals in Belarus and the recent violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

However, Rama stressed that the OSCE was the only remaining East-West security forum able to tackle crises that other regional groups have failed to solve.

The OSCE managed to fill the post of secretary-general only after months of wrangling, as Russia and Central Asian countries wanted to push through a candidate from Eastern Europe.

Schmid is now facing the difficult task of uniting the member states — and of reinvigorating the organization and making it a more relevant voice in the multilateral world.

This article has been translated from German.