On Wednesday, Oct. 3, Macalester alumni, students, faculty and staff gathered in the Weyerhaeuser Boardroom for a discussion featuring European Union (EU) Ambassador to the United States David O’Sullivan.
A native of Dublin, O’Sullivan has served as a member of the European Commission since 1979. He has held a number of notable positions during that time, including Head of the President’s Cabinet from 1999 to 2000, Secretary General between 2000 and 2005 and Director General for Trade from 2005 to 2010.
In 2014, O’Sullivan became the EU’s top diplomat to the United States. He arrived on campus to discuss the current state of EU trade relations with the U.S., as well as the role of the EU in promoting sustainable global development.
The event was part of O’Sullivan’s trip to Minnesota to meet with state officials and observe campaign preparations for the midterm elections. International studies professor Nadya Nedelsky and political science professor Andrew Latham moderated the discussion.
Throughout his remarks, O’Sullivan highlighted the importance of the partnership between the United States and the EU, and expressed optimism about the current state of relations between the two entities.
“The transatlantic partnership is the single most important relationship in the world,” he said. “We are linked by a close commitment to our values – whether that’s democracy, the rule of law or individual freedoms.”
He echoed that sentiment when asked how the EU plans to compensate for a change in the quality of U.S. leadership on the international stage, especially as it relates to security. He also highlighted a few obstacles of the EU defense system.
“Our capabilities are all national, there will never be a ‘European Army’ or a ‘NATO [North Atlantic Trade Organization] Army,’” O’Sullivan said. “That being said, there are a ton of inefficiencies in our system, and what we get for our expenditure is 15% of what [the U.S.] get. The first thing we need to do is get better value for the money we do spend.”
O’Sullivan did not shy away when discussing Brexit negotiations with the UK. He assured the audience that despite the UK’s departure, the EU remains strong.
“The overwhelming reaction to the decision was deep sadness,” O’Sullivan said. “It was a referendum with a democratic vote and they made that choice. Most of us deeply regret it, we wish they had remained in the European Union.”
Today, Brexit negotiations are progressing steadily. Terms of the secession will be finished by March 2019.
“Around 85 percent of the withdrawal treaty [with the UK] is finished,” he said.
“The remaining parts deal with establishing the Northern Ireland border, which, under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, allowed for goods, people, services and capital to flow freely. We dismantled the border, which became less and less meaningful because of joint membership of the European Union. Brexit completely reverses all that.”
While O’Sullivan was disappointed with the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, he made it clear that such decisions are not the EU’s to make. Regional movements of separatism and independence are hardly a rare occurrence within member states.
O’Sullivan addressed the Catalan independence movement of eastern Spain, the failed Scottish independence movement in 2014 and the peaceful breakup of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 to exemplify that point.
“The EU position is that it’s whatever works for your home state,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s a matter of national, constitutional practice. The most important things are how you manage the conflict and how you provide for the true wishes of the people.”
As a larger governing body, the EU creates broad policy initiatives to deal with problems that impact all its member states – for example, the European refugee crisis.
A disproportionate number of refugees were settling in Italy and Greece, so EU leaders implemented relocation reforms to spread them more evenly among all member states – a decision that was met with some resistance.
In particular, the governments of Hungary and Poland protested the quota policy, arguing that each state should be able to dictate the amount of refugees resettled within its own borders.
“I think we have shown some historical understanding [to this issue],” O’Sullivan said, “but I myself am very critical of their blanket refusal to participate in this exercise of solidarity. Though there are not as many refugees as there were in 2015 or 2016, we are in need a new system for dealing with refugees, asylum and migration in Europe.”
O’Sullivan closed by highlighting the inseparable nature of EU-US relations. Though tensions may persist, he is optimistic about the future of the relationship.
“We have infinitely more in common with each other than we do with anybody else,” O’Sullivan said. This is something that we must not lose sight of. These common goals have carried us through periods of confrontation, where there are more points of disagreement than common interest.”
My point is,” he concluded, “that we are each other’s greatest allies and first resort. A peaceful, prosperous and stable Europe is very much in America’s interests, and I don’t envision that changing anytime soon.