Holger Osterrieder, Coordinator of OS-EU2020 – the Planning and Protocol Task Force for the Organisation and Implementation of the German Presidency of the Council of the EU at the Federal Foreign Office, talks in an interview about the challenges of suddenly having to organise a Presidency which is both digital and physical, while also being creative.

Mr Osterrieder, you coordinated the EU2020 Planning and Protocol Task Force at the Federal Foreign Office. What exactly does the Task Force do?

Holger Osterrieder: Making politics visible and creating the right framework for a productive exchange – that’s our mission. By doing that, we make possible personal encounters, all across Europe, among politicians, citizens and representatives of civil society. We were guided by basic protocol and organisational principles when organising all the events during the German Presidency, regardless of whether they were held in person, in a hybrid form or virtually: efficiency, sustainability, hospitality, regional diversity and innovation.

The basic protocol and organisational principles for the German Presidency:

  • Efficiency was ensured by focusing on clearly defined results and tightly structured organisational processes;
  • Sustainability was achieved, among other things, by comprehensively offsetting CO2 emissions;
  • Hospitality took the form of, for example, individual support for the delegations, both physically and virtually;
  • Innovation was assured by devising new virtual and hybrid formats;
  • Regional diversity was showcased by promoting Germany’s wealth of cultural and federal traditions, also in the virtual space.

From March 2020 onwards, everything was suddenly different due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What changed?

Osterrieder: Given its scale and the impact on the general public, the COVID-19 pandemic was certainly a sobering experience, also for us. And that hasn’t changed. At the same time, the work during the following weeks and months was marked by extraordinary energy and motivation, because our goal remained to make Europe strong again by bringing people together.

Intensive consultations, in-depth talks and the gathering of new ideas with the ministries, Länder and our European partners gained a very special momentum due to the COVID-19 pandemic – most certainly to the lasting benefit of the European idea.

At the start of the pandemic, for instance, the Task Force organised workshops on digital conference formats in which new methods, tools and protocol options were presented and discussed.

At the EU-27-Latin America-Caribbean Conference, for example, we held the biggest hybrid event of the Presidency at the Federal Foreign Ministry in close coordination with the top echelon of the Ministry, the Directorate-General responsible, more than 50 guest delegations and our technical partners. All delegations, whether they took part physically or virtually, were given equal treatment when it came to protocol.

Despite the COVID-19 crisis, it was also possible for some ministerial meetings to take place physically. In late August, the Gymnich Meeting, that’s to say the meeting of EU Foreign Ministers, along with the meeting of Defence Ministers organised by the Federal Ministry of Defence, was the biggest physical international ministerial meeting organised by the Task Force since the start of the COVID-19 crisis in Europe. And it had to be done in compliance with the strictest hygiene rules.

What were the biggest challenges of an ongoing German Presidency during the COVID‑19 pandemic?

Osterrieder: In terms of organisation, we had to plan all events simultaneously in three forms – physical, virtual and hybrid – always taking into account the latest challenges posed by the pandemic. Hybrid formats, that’s to say mixed digital and physical formats, became especially important.

Virtual events are often seen solely in terms of whether or not the technology works. Are the microphones on mute? How is the sound and video quality?

But that’s by no means everything that’s possible. Traditional protocol principles can also be applied in the virtual space. That includes digital placements and family photos, binational and multinational dialogue formats, multimedia presentations as well as interactive lists of speakers. It’s also possible for liaison officers to provide comprehensive individual support to each delegation.

We also managed to show the other member states Germany’s cultural and regional diversity – for example, with digital tours through the cities in which events were originally due to take place.

Video conference interpretation involving up to 21 languages at digital and hybrid meetings proved to be a special challenge. Thanks to the excellent cooperation between the language services of the Federal Foreign Office and other ministries, the EU institutions – here the Directorate-General for Interpretation of the European Commission (SCIC) – and the entire German Government, this too worked well and we were able to find viable solutions together.

How important are terms such as “flexibility” or “creativity”?

Osterrieder: Good organisation always requires us to be flexible and prudent and to act with foresight. What’s more, it means finding innovative and creative solutions for problems which sometimes crop up at the last minute.

That was also the case during the German Presidency. Events planned well in advance had to be adapted several times within a short space of time due to the pandemic, something we had never experienced before. At the same time, it was crucial to develop new formats for communication (also internally), such as digital division gatherings and meetings, workshops or briefings.

Organising a sustainable Presidency was one of the German Government’s aims. What does that mean exactly and has it been possible during the pandemic?

Osterrieder: Even during this pandemic, the German Government has consistently pursued and implemented its goal of making the Presidency sustainable and climate-neutral. CO2emissions which could not be avoided were offset by supporting international projects for climate change mitigation in Malawi, Uganda and Zambia. What’s more, attention was paid to the recyclability of materials and it was decided not to hand out giveaways.