An EU-US diplomat speaks: Trump’s election ‘required a bit of adjustment’
His 40 years in the EU have given Irish diplomat David O’Sullivan a front-row view of history
After four years as the European Union’s top diplomat in Washington, David O’Sullivan will soon leave the US capital – as well as the EU’s civil service. His role as EU ambassador has given him exposure to many of DC’s famous residents, including Barack and Michelle Obama. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
High on the 10th floor of the EU delegation building overlooking Washington Circle in downtown DC, David O’Sullivan is preparing to leave the office that has been his workplace for more than four years.
Outside, portraits of former EU ambassadors to the United States, including former taoiseach John Bruton, hang in the hallway.
Inside, Jacques Delors’ Memoires and Carlo Bastasin’s Saving Europe: An Anatomy of a Dream are neatly stacked on the table – a telling insight into a man who has dedicated his career to the European Union.
After four years as the EU’s top diplomat in Washington, O’Sullivan is preparing to take his leave of DC – and of the EU’s civil service – as he reaches retirement age.
O’Sullivan has long been seen as one of Ireland’s most experienced and accomplished EU officials. He joined the European institutions in 1979, one of the new crop of Irish officials who moved to Brussels in the early years of Ireland’s EU membership. From there he swiftly moved up the ranks, spending five years at the EU’s mission in Tokyo where he met his Irish wife, Agnes.
Over the years he held senior positions in the cabinets of commissioners Peter Sutherland and Pádraig Flynn, and various European divisions. In 2000 he became secretary general of the European Commission – the most senior civil service job in the EU – and was replaced by another Irish official, Catherine Day, five years later when he was appointed director general of trade.
In 2010 he went to set up the EU’s new foreign policy wing, the European External Action Service (EEAS) , in the wake of the Lisbon Treaty.
His 40-year career has given him a front-row view of history – from the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the launch of the single currency, to the enlargement of the European Union in 2004.
But perhaps nothing could prepare him for his most recent role – EU ambassador to the United States. O’Sullivan was appointed to the position in 2014. Back then the main issue dominating EU-US relations was negotiations on TTIP, the transatlantic trade and investment partnership trade deal. Barack Obama was in power and relations between Washington and Brussels were warm.
But everything changed on November 8th, 2016. Donald Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States took the country, and the world, by surprise.
“This was a complete break and required a bit of adjustment on the part of all diplomats,” O’Sullivan admits, as he recalls watching the results of the election roll-in on election night.
“All the preconceived ideas we had about America’s engagement with the international order were potentially turned upside down. The question was, how much of this is really going to change?”
The answer, unfortunately for many of the United States’ allies, was that it did change. As O’Sullivan points out, Trump turned out to be “remarkably consistent in government with what he said on the campaign trail”.
The candidate, who had run on an “America first” agenda, sought to reset America’s relationship with the world, particularly in terms of trade, blaming the EU, among others, for unfair trade practices.
By last year the president had moved forward with his threat to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium, and continues to threaten tariffs on car imports, though a meeting with commission president Jean-Claude Juncker last July did bring some reprieve.
Then in December, O’Sullivan arrived to the funeral of George HW Bush to find that the status of EU ambassador had been downgraded without the state department informing the EU.
While the union’s ambassador had enjoyed the same rank as a national ambassador since the establishment of the EEAS, it had now been reclassified as an international organisation.
While O’Sullivan declines to talk about specifics, officials say they expect the decision to be ultimately reversed, and O’Sullivan is keen to brush the episode off as a protocol matter rather than a statement about the status of the EU delegation.
Indeed O’Sullivan is keen not to overstate the tensions between the EU and the US, believing that the transatlantic relationship is still strong, though Mr Trump again this week accused the EU of being “very difficult” over “many, many years”.
“[Trump] has been critical of Europe but he has been critical of everyone. I don’t think Europe has been more singled out than other parts of the world.”
Barack and Michelle have been round for Saturday afternoon tea
Having observed the president at close quarters, including at the Oval Office meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker, he is prepared to give Trump some credit. “He is extremely polite, he is extremely courteous, he states his position but listens to others,” he says of the US president.
O’Sullivan’s role as EU ambassador has also given him exposure to some of DC’s other famous residents. He and his wife live in the official EU residence next door to the Obamas, and Barack and Michelle have been round for Saturday afternoon tea. “They’re both very charming. Michelle, in particular, I had not really spoken to before.”
On the other side of their residence, which is teeming with secret service personnel, live Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner. They too have visited the O’Sullivans, for dinner. “Very nice,” he says with characteristic diplomacy, when I ask what they are like.
O’Sullivan is preparing to leave his career in the European Union not only at a challenging time for EU-US relations, but also for the European project as a whole.
He says his overwhelming reaction to Brexit is “deep sadness”.
“I think it’s very, very sad, to see the UK leave the European Union. They have contributed an enormous amount, particularly on the single market side. British officials have been extremely professional.
“The paradox of the leaving is that the European Union that the UK leaves today is much more in the image of the kind of Europe the UK wanted than was the case when they joined in 1973.”
I don’t think countries should have to fear for their national identity through European co-operation
But as someone who is a passionate believer in the European project, does he believe that Brexit has exposed the limits of the vision of “ever closer union” envisaged by the European treaties? “I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I can honestly say that never a year goes by than there was some crisis, some sense that the European project is not working ... We always have a debate about what should be done at the European level versus what should be done at the national level. That’s been a constant theme of the European project and it will remain a constant theme.”
O’Sullivan continues: “I don’t deny that there are challenges, but the purpose of European integration has never been to dismantle the nation state. It is to allow the nation state to better flourish in the context of a European framework which guarantees peace, freedom and prosperity.
“I don’t think countries should have to fear for their national identity through European co-operation.”
Similarly O’Sullivan rejects the idea that Brussels could have done more to address Britain’s concerns, particularly on free movement. He notes that the EU treaties underpinning enlargement in 2004 included the option for countries to restrict freedom of movement for seven years. “Only three countries chose not to exercise that option – Ireland, Sweden and the UK,” he says.
“I’m a passionate believer in free movement – I believe the intra-European immigration into the UK has brought massive benefits to the British economy – but… they had the choice and could have limited immigration for those years and they chose not to.”
As for Ireland’s future in a European Union without Britain, O’Sullivan accepts that Ireland is losing an important ally in Europe, but he says Britain is not the only country to believe in free trade and the market economy. “There are many countries in Europe who share those views, so I think we will find plenty of allies on issues.”
He also fully supports the Irish Government’s position on the backstop in the Brexit talks. “The reality of the situation is that if you add up the three things the British mention – leave the customs union, leave the single market and have no hard border – it’s not clear how you reconcile those three things.”
Ireland offers a model of what the European Union can offer countries
Ultimately, EU membership will continue benefiting Ireland, he believes. “The benefits of European Union membership to Ireland have been huge. Obviously the financial transfers, the economic development, but also the opening of minds and hearts. The Ireland today, compared to the Ireland I grew up in in the 60s and 70s, is a different country, and in large measure that’s due to European Union membership.”
Further, he thinks that Ireland offers a model of what the European Union can offer countries. Ireland’s membership of the union has coincided with a period when the country has “never had a higher international profile or a sense of its own identity,” he says.
“Ireland is the living proof that you can be a fully signed-up member of the European Union, fully committed to the process of integration and retain your identity, retain your cultural values and sense of nationhood,” he says. “Feeling part of Europe is complementary to being Irish – it’s not a substitute.”