This interview was conducted before talks broke down between Greece and its European creditors and the country defaulted on its loan to the International Monetary Fund. On July 5, after this issue went to press, Greeks voted to reject Europe’s terms for spending cuts in return for a financial bailout, pushing Greece closer to leaving the eurozone.
Every month, thousands of desperate Arab and African refugees reach Europe’s Mediterranean shores after crossing the sea from lawless Libya on rickety, wooden boats; some of them die along the way. Russia’s continuing military aggression against Ukraine threatens to spark the worst confrontation between Brussels and Moscow since the Cold War.
The European Union itself struggles with economic stagnation throughout the continent, with anger especially strong in cash-strapped Greece, which sits on the verge of a debt default, while British voters eye holding a referendum on whether to pull out of the club altogether.
Between the migrant crisis, the Ukraine crisis, the eurozone crisis and the sheer complexity of representing 28 countries in Washington simultaneously, it’s a good thing Ambassador David O’Sullivan hasn’t lost his sense of humor — or, for that matter, his passion for the country where he now serves as Europe’s top diplomat.
“I love the United States,” the Dublin-born O’Sullivan told us recently. “I came to California as a young child; I describe that as my ‘Wizard of Oz’ moment, when the movie goes from black and white to Technicolor. I’ve always retained this great affection for this country’s vitality and energy, and for the optimism of the American people. And now I’ve rediscovered all that again.”
As chief of the EU Delegation to the United States, O’Sullivan says his role in the diplomatic community is somewhat unique.
“My job is explaining what’s going on in the EU to Americans — foreign policy issues like Ukraine, the migration crisis, the digital single market and Daesh [an Arabic word for the Islamic State] — and explaining what’s happening here to people back in Brussels,” said O’Sullivan, whose 45-minute interview with The Washington Diplomat was the first he’s granted to any local media since presenting his credentials to President Obama in November 2014.
“We have 28 ambassadors representing each of their member states here,” he said. “I bring the added value of topping it up with what we do as the EU.”
O’Sullivan is only the second diplomat to hold that position, established when the Treaty of Lisbon came into force on Dec. 1, 2009. The first was Portugal’s João Vale de Almeida, who served from August 2010 until O’Sullivan’s arrival.
The Irishman — who’s fluent in French, Spanish, German and Japanese besides his native English — was chief operating officer of the EU’s diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service, prior to taking on what’s likely his last assignment before retirement. He calls the EU itself a “remarkable achievement” unprecedented in human history.
“Some people don’t agree with the Europe we have built, or feel we should not integrate further,” he said. “But never forget that what we’ve done in Europe is a unique political experiment. Never in history has a supranational entity been built through the voluntary pooling of sovereignty of independent democratic states.”
Formed in 1957, the EU is home to more than 500 million inhabitants, or just over 7 percent of the world’s population. Its trade with the rest of the world comprises 20 percent of global exports and imports. In 2014, the bloc’s GDP came to $13.9 trillion euro, just behind China but slightly ahead of the United States.
“When I first joined in 1979, we were nine countries,” O’Sullivan told us. “Some 36 years later, we are 28 countries — including 12 from the former Soviet bloc — with a single market, a fully integrated economic structure, common values and a single currency for 19 countries. You can drive from Helsinki to Lisbon without having to change your currency or show your passport, and you can pay with your bank card in every gas station along the way.”
Despite its recent fiscal crisis, the EU’s relative prosperity is luring immigrants from Africa and the Arab world like never before. With Libya immersed in civil war and nobody to patrol the desert country’s vast Mediterranean coastline, human traffickers are using the country as a jumping-off point to smuggle tens of thousands of immigrants to Europe in search of better lives.
“A tragedy of epic proportions” is how the United Nations calls the current crisis in the Mediterranean, where a record 100,000 migrants and refugees have attempted the crossing in the first half of 2015, many from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. In 2014, Italy alone received more than 170,000 refugees, while Germany was flooded with over 200,000 applicants. Sweden, meanwhile, had the most applicants per capita, with 8.4 asylum seekers per 1,000 residents.
African migrants pay $400 to $700 per person to make the trip, while those fleeing the war in Syria are charged up to $1,500 to cross the sea, said Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Yet many of these desperate people don’t make it to Europe. So far this year, more than 1,800 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean, with those numbers expected to surge in the coming months as the weather improves.
“To a certain extent, the migration issue is the problem from hell,” O’Sullivan told The Diplomat. “It’s so multilayered and has so many dimensions, there is no simple answer. So what the European Commission has proposed — and which has been broadly endorsed — is basically a multilayered response.”
That includes beefing up the budget for maritime-patrolling operations; destroying the boats used by smugglers; targeting human traffickers; and instituting a voluntary program to resettle refugees across the EU while “rapidly” assessing and returning those who do not qualify for asylum (and the vast majority — roughly 95 percent — do not).
The most immediate priority, O’Sullivan said, is humanitarian: rescuing people at sea. Italy ended a largely effective search-and-rescue mission last year after complaining that the EU needed to shoulder more of the financial burden. A subsequent EU patrolling operation was more limited in scope and funds (in part because of budget constraints but also because of fears that a strong rescue operation would perversely encourage more migrants to undertake the dangerous journey). The bloc didn’t fully respond to the humanitarian crisis on its shores until a sinking in April killed at least 900 people.
In mid-May, authorities unveiled a proposal to triple the EU budget specifically for life-saving missions throughout the Mediterranean, which would help Italy and other countries that have borne a disproportionate share of the burden of caring for new arrivals simply because of their southern location. Under the European Agenda on Migration, a quota plan also urges member countries to take in migrants based on those states’ relative size and economic circumstances.
“Italy in particular, but also Greece and Malta, have done a fantastic job and shown great generosity of spirit during difficult times. But we needed a broader effort, and that’s now happening,” O’Sullivan explained. “We also need to stop the abuse by smugglers of people in distress being put out to sea on unseaworthy boats. We must smash their business models.
“I don’t think it’s so much a question of how much money, but more a question of greater willingness to spread the burden,” the EU envoy continued. “The commission has proposed, on a more permanent basis, to have pre-allocations for other countries which will take asylum seekers once they’ve been processed, so that the burden of accommodating these people does not fall only on the countries where they first arrive.”
But growing anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain, Hungary and elsewhere is already fueling opposition to the EU plan, even though other countries such as France, Germany and Italy support it, as do many nongovernmental organizations throughout Europe.
“These initiatives reflect serious and constructive approaches to a challenge which IOM expects to continue,” the organization’s director-general, William Lacy Swing, said in a recent statement. “We strongly support the EU recommendation to prioritize saving migrant lives at sea by expanding current border patrol operations to the level and scale of the life-saving Mare Nostrum operation, which was phased out last year.”
But the Geneva-based humanitarian group and a slew of scholars have serious concerns about new EU proposals to “systematically identify, capture and destroy vessels used by smugglers.” They warn that such actions, however laudable, could further endanger migrants’ lives by creating a response that focuses primarily on law and enforcement, rather than search and rescue.
O’Sullivan played down the idea that EU security forces would drop explosives on rickety boats off the Libyan coast as a way to disrupt human trafficking networks.
“Bombing vessels might be a very small part of it, but this whole debate has been hijacked by the issue of bombing boats,” he lamented. “Frankly, I don’t even know if that will be part of the mission statement when it’s decided in New York.”
O’Sullivan said it’s also crucial that the EU make better use of development aid to offer people in source countries prospects for a better future — along with “revamping our migration policy to make it slightly easier to increase the possibilities for legal migration, recognizing that under no circumstances would we be able to accept everyone who wants to come to Europe.”
In the long term, he said, the EU must “try to help bring political stability to the countries which are the source of the problem. The fact is that law and order has broken down in Libya, and we need to help Libya rebuild a sense of governance.”
That sounds like a tall order to fill, now that the vast North African country has basically collapsed amid bitter fighting between Libya’s internationally recognized government and rebel groups struggling to bring that government down.
“Of course it’s difficult, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to end the violence in both Syria and Libya,” O’Sullivan told us. “On one level, it’s not rocket science. The challenge is, if the situation has gotten to this point, it’s because there are some intractable disagreements. Our challenge is to change that dynamic. We’re extremely supportive of what Bernardino León [the U.N. special representative for Libya] is doing, and he’s tirelessly working to get the parties back around the table. That’s at the heart of what Europe is about.”
Europe’s other big foreign policy crisis is, of course, Ukraine and the tensions sparked by Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. Last year’s uprising in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian rebels has morphed into an all-out civil war that so far has claimed more than 6,500 lives, displaced 1.3 million and destroyed much of the country’s industrial heartland.
Meanwhile, according to the International Monetary Fund, Ukraine’s GDP fell by 6.8 percent in 2014 and will shrink another 5.5 percent this year. (By comparison, the EU projects overall GDP in the 28-nation bloc to rise by 1.7 percent this year and 2.1 percent in 2016.)
To force Russian President Vladimir Putin to lay off Ukraine, the EU — along with the United States — has imposed a punishing series of sanctions against Moscow, recently agreeing to extend those sanctions by another six months.
“The sanctions will continue until there’s full implementation of the Minsk agreement. That’s been our position for some time now,” said O’Sullivan, referring to the ceasefire signed in Belarus by Ukraine, Russia and the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. “The best hope for an improvement in the situation is the Minsk agreement, which if fully implemented would offer a diplomatic way forward. We expect both parties to that agreement to live up to the responsibilities they have undertaken.”
The fact that hasn’t happened doesn’t mean the EU’s anti-Kremlin policy has been a mistake, the ambassador said.
“The combination of sanctions and the fall in oil prices has incurred a serious cost to the Russian economy, in which we take no pleasure,” O’Sullivan explained. “It’s ordinary Russian people who are suffering as a result, but it is the only way we can send a very clear message that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its interference in eastern Ukraine is completely unacceptable. We are profoundly convinced that Mr. Putin has to be sent a very strong message.”’
Asked why he wouldn’t call Russia’s involvement in Ukraine an “invasion” rather than the less sinister-sounding “interference,” the diplomat had this to say: “I don’t want to play with words. The intervention in eastern Ukraine is a hybrid warfare exercise involving a mixture of propaganda and stirring up discontent, and certainly the presence of the Russian military, whether fully or officially sanctioned or not. If there were to be a breakdown of negotiations, then the question of additional sanctions would have to be considered. We trade much more with Russia than the U.S. does, so it’s clear that the sanctions hit us much harder than they hit the United States.”
And those sanctions have hit certain countries harder than others — a crack Putin has been eagerly trying to exploit by courting EU members such as Hungary and Greece.
Exactly how much those sanctions have cost EU member states is hard to say, though earlier this year, Spain’s foreign minister put the figure at 21 billion euro. Part of that is direct losses from the ban on exports to Russia, but it also includes Moscow’s reciprocal ban, for example, on Polish apples and pears, “so when we impose sanctions, the Russians retaliate, causing a country like Poland to suffer massively,” O’Sullivan said.
He added: “It’s the same with the Iran sanctions. That also hurts us economically. You get the impression that Europeans run away from difficult choices, but in both these cases, we have taken some very tough positions which cause us pain.”
On a more positive economic front, O’Sullivan spends much of his time these days pushing the benefits of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a complex free-trade agreement that would basically remove barriers to commerce between the United States and the EU.
Like its companion proposal, the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that focuses on Asia, eventual passage of TTIP depended on President Obama first winning congressional approval for “fast-track” authority, which allows him to submit trade deals for an up-or-down vote in Congress. Republicans helped pass that authority last month, although the legislative maneuvering caused a rift between Obama and his fellow Democrats, who oppose both trade deals mainly on the grounds that they erode American jobs and wages.
For O’Sullivan, the benefits of TTIP to both Americans and Europeans are obvious and passage should be a “no-brainer,” he argues. If successful, TTIP would account for more than 40 percent of global GDP.
“Our transatlantic trade corridor is already the largest in the world. We do more business with each other than either of us do with any other part of the world,” he pointed out. “Opening up our trade and services still further would only enhance the economic interaction across the Atlantic. I understand that some people are afraid this will somehow negatively impact consumer rights and environmental standards, but I cannot imagine either the United States or the EU proposing for ratification a deal that did that.”
O’Sullivan also denied reports that negotiators in Washington and Brussels are engaging in backroom deals that could somehow cost millions of jobs. Late last year, a series of protests broke out across European cities by trade opponents worried about everything from shale gas to corporate finance.
“On the European side, we have made public all the texts so people can see what we have put on the table, in order to bust the myth that somehow lots of secret deals were going on,” the ambassador told us. “I don’t know what else to say.”
One thing O’Sullivan does not seem particularly worried about is the rise in populist euroskeptic parties across the continent. In 2014 elections to the European Parliament, political parties opposed to greater EU integration won about 25 percent of the vote — with particularly strong showings by Britain’s UK Independence Party, the National Front in France, Denmark’s People’s Party and the Greek leftist party Syriza.
“I believe that on closer examination, these euroskeptic parties will be seen not to have a credible alternative how we can make Europe more peaceful, but I’m disappointed that there seems to be a growth in the support of these views,” he said.
On that note, the diplomat praised British Prime Minister David Cameron’s May 27 announcement — only eight months after the failure of a referendum on Scottish independence — to hold a similar referendum, possibly before the end of 2017, on whether U.K. citizens want to stay in the EU.
“There is clearly a substantial debate in the U.K. It’s a good thing that debate is going to happen, and they’ll get to vote on what they ultimately want,” O’Sullivan said. “I hope a majority of the British people will vote to remain in the EU, but I don’t take that for granted. But we should not be afraid of allowing the debate to take place.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.