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EU Ambassador Optimistic Bloc Can Overcome Cascading Crises

By Laura Spitalniak

The European Union has not had a great year. Between Brexit, the rise of populist parties and the upcoming critical vote in France, the 28-member bloc that brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to post-World War II Europe looks to be on the verge of disintegrating.

Ever the diplomat/optimist, EU Ambassador David O’Sullivan rejects the premise that the bloc is on its last legs, although he admits it is going through a tough time.

“I’ve been working with European institutions since 1979, and there’s always been a cyclical element of moments of great optimism, moments of a sort of sense of forward movement and then, frankly, moments of a feeling that things are not going so well, and even Euro-pessimism and Euro-sclerosis,” he said. “So I profoundly believe myself that what we’re going through now is one of those sort of downturns in the cycle.”

O’Sullivan spoke April 4 at the Council on Foreign Relations for a panel titled “The Future of Europe: The EU at a Crossroads,” part of the think tank’s Washington Meetings series.

Panelists included Jeffrey Anderson, director of the BMW Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University, and Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution, with Arshad Mohammed, diplomatic correspondent for Reuters, moderating.

From left, European Union Ambassador David O’Sullivan, Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution, Jeffrey Anderson of Georgetown University and Arshad Mohammed of Reuters talk about “The Future of Europe: The EU at a Crossroads” at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mohammed immediately addressed the growing nationalism and nativism tendencies that have been brewing on both sides of the Atlantic. He asked O’Sullivan if he believed these to be the root cause of the discontent that ultimately led to Britain’s decision to ditch the bloc.

“The Brexit vote, in my view, is relatively British-specific,” he replied. “If there was ever a country that was going to have that referendum and have that result, it probably was the U.K., which has always had a sort of slightly semi-detached view of the whole European thing. So I think it’s wrong to extrapolate from that that this is then a Europe-wide trend.”

O’Sullivan conceded that resentment does abound, especially since the 2008 global financial crash. “I think there’s a very strong relationship between economic performance, economic growth and a sense of well-being about Europe,” the ambassador said, noting that while some nations like Germany have performed very well, others continue to lag behind. “We’re definitely experiencing the sort of backlash of the economic downturn.”

He added that “there is a natural tendency to attribute some of that, if not much of that, to Europe.” At the same time, some of the blame is overblown. He cited polls showing that among the 27 remaining members, trust and support for European institutions remains high. He also said Brussels is a convenient political scapegoat.

“There has been a tendency in all national politicians toward what I call the nationalization of success and the Europeanization of failure,” he said, explaining that politicians often take credit for extracting victories from Brussels, while blaming it for painful decisions or losses.

“You do this consistently over 20, 30 years, people are not foolish. They kind of think, ‘Yeah, good things come from our national system, and Brussels largely delivers bad news or only has good news extracted from it by the efforts of our national politicians.

“And if this project is going to go forward, I think we need a much more open dialogue between our national politicians and our citizens about why the European Union actually delivers real benefits and … why working alone and trying to do it on your own will not deliver the outcomes that our citizens actually want,” he argued.

A British member of the public votes at a polling station in South London to cast a vote for the European Parliament Elections on May 22, 2014. Last year, the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union altogether, a decision that continues to reverberate as Brexit negotiations get underway. Photo: © European Union 2014 - European Parliament

Anderson agreed with O’Sullivan about “the long-run optimism, about Europe’s chances of getting through this reasonably intact. But there’s also no gainsaying the fact that this is the most significant crisis that Europe has faced since its inception. In fact, it’s not one crisis. It’s four overlapping crises, with a potential fifth crisis lurking in the background,” he said, citing the financial crisis, aggression by Russia on Europe’s periphery, the refugee crisis and Brexit, with Donald Trump and his repeated dismissals of the transatlantic alliance potentially posing a major problem as well.

“If there were a title to this, it would probably poach Lemony Snicket; you know, a series of unfortunate events,” he quipped.

Mohammed pointed to the parallels between Brexit, President Trump’s election and the current French presidential elections, in which the runoff round on May 7 will pit the far-right anti-immigrant, anti-establishment crusader Marine Le Pen against a fellow outsider, Emmanuel Macron, a centrist who blends right and left views and has never held office before. “There are a great number of people who didn’t believe Brexit would happen,” Mohammed said.

“There are a great number of people who didn’t believe that Donald Trump would win. What happens if Marine Le Pen wins?”

“The great experiment begins,” Anderson replied wryly. “That’s a very good question. I mean, she’s obviously pledged a great deal to her electorate, including putting a referendum before the French people to take France out of the EU within the first six months of her presidency.” Still, he wondered how far Le Pen would actually be able to go.

“She won’t have a majority in the National Assembly even after the June election,” he said. “So while she may be able to find a prime minister who can command a majority, it’s hard for me to imagine that she’ll have a Parliament that’s able to get behind her on a series of initiatives. “And if the Trump administration thinks it’s fighting against a deep state, wait until Marine Le Pen starts going against the French,” Anderson said with a laugh. Britain’s divorce from the EU, however, is very real. Mohammed asked the group whether the split would be amicable or ugly. “We’re sounding like relationship therapists, aren’t we?” Stelzenmüller joked. “There have been the signals from the German government and the chancellor that it is not in anybody’s interest to have an acrimonious, you know, fistfight over this,” she said.

What will the United Kingdom’s future in Europe look like? The day after European Council President Donald Tusk proposed a settlement in response to U.K. demands for reforms, MEPs discussed the issue as part of a debate on the EU summit in February 2016. Despite warnings of the economic repercussions of Brexit, the United Kingdom decided to leave the EU in a landmark vote later that year. Photo: © European Union 2014 - European Parliament

Still, Stelzenmüller said the EU does not want to give other member states the impression that it is easy to pick up and leave.

“There is also a sentiment that this shouldn’t in any way provide incentives for others to think that they will get an easy way out — one that isn’t complicated, one that doesn’t apply a lot of hard work.”

Stelzenmüller said that regardless of regrets or hindsight, citizens in the EU and Britain need to accept this new truth.

“The British decision is clear,” she said. “This is what’s going to happen. There’s no way we’re going to turn back this clock.”

O’Sullivan agreed that what’s done is done, calling it a “lose-lose situation.”

“I think it’s in both our interests to manage this in the most adult and sort of mature way possible, but recognizing, I repeat, that there’s no happy ending to this. The outcome at the end of the day is a diminished EU and a diminished U.K., and probably some economic loss on the European side, and I think probably quite a bit of economic loss on the U.K. side,” he said, adding that the upcoming negotiations will be “an exercise of damage limitation, basically — damage to them and damage to us. We can’t come out of this better than we are now."

Laura Spitalniak is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.



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