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Outgoing EU Ambassador Talks Brexit and Transatlantic Trade at American University

By Samantha Subin

“It’s absolutely true that if we are not a union of values, then we are no union at all,” said Ambassador David O’Sullivan to a packed room on Feb. 7.

O’Sullivan, who completes his tenure as ambassador of the European Union to the United States in February, discussed Brexit, transatlantic trade and the Iran nuclear deal during a discussion at American University led by professor Garret Martin.

“Are there any reasons that we should be more optimistic?” Martin asked in regards to Brexit, opening an extensive 40 minute-long discussion.

Fueled by concerns over immigration and sovereignty, British voters narrowly approved a referendum in June 2016 for the U.K. to divorce itself from the EU.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has since worked to hammer out a withdrawal agreement that would provide a framework for U.K.-EU relations after Brexit. But she has failed to sell the deal to lawmakers back home, and the EU has ruled out renegotiating the agreement.

With no solution in sight ahead of a March 29 deadline, fears are growing that the U.K. could crash out of the EU, which would send markets reeling and disrupt trade and the free movement of people.

EU Ambassador Talks Brexit and Transatlantic Trade
European Ambassador David O’Sullivan speaks at the 70th anniversary celebration of the Marshall Plan, an American initiative that helped rebuild Europe after World War II, during an event held at the Marshall House in Leesburg, Va., on June 4, 2017. Despite current tensions with the Trump administration, O’Sullivan has repeatedly stressed that the transatlantic relationship remains solid. Photo: EU in the US

O’Sullivan is optimistic that the worst-case scenario won’t happen.

“I remain convinced that we will find a solution because nobody wants a disorderly departure of the U.K.,” he said. “Many of us would wish that they wouldn’t leave at all, but they’ve already made their democratic choice and we respect that.”

Indeed, May recently floated the idea of seeking a delay past the March 29 deadline to continue negotiations.

But the negotiations are still fraught with thorny issues. O’Sullivan highlighted some of those challenges, which include resolving Britain’s financial commitments to the EU; the rights of EU citizens who remain in the U.K. and U.K. citizens who remain in the EU; and the avoidance of a return to a hard border with Ireland — an issue O’Sullivan called the “most difficult.”

The so-called Irish backstop, in fact, has become the biggest hurdle to a Brexit deal (also see “Brexit’s Dividing Line: Irish Backstop Threatens U.K.’s Divorce from EU, and Northern Ireland’s Fragile Peace” in the March 2019 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Northern Ireland was plagued by three decades of violence known as “The Troubles,” in which predominantly Catholic Irish nationalists wanted Northern Ireland to leave the U.K. and create a united Ireland, while Protestant-majority unionists fought to stay in the U.K. Approximately 3,500 people were killed during the conflict, which ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement.

That agreement created a seamless border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. If the U.K. crashes out of the EU, however, a hard border would come down between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Irish backstop would ensure that if the U.K. and EU fail to come to a long-term agreement on their post-Brexit relationship, the Irish border would remain open and invisible. If that happens, Britain would remain in the EU customs union, a prospect that Brexit supporters say would tie the U.K. to the EU indefinitely. But others argue that the backstop is the only to prevent a hard border that might reignite hostilities.

“The issue is, does Brexit trigger high risk of a hard border returning,” O’Sullivan said. “How do you manage two different customs jurisdictions? How do you manage two different regulatory jurisdictions without checking things at the border?”

O’Sullivan discussed other concerns such as the eurozone crisis and the European Union’s ability to deal with financial crises.

In 2008, the EU struggled with a severe debt crisis after the collapse of Iceland’s banking system and the global financial recession. The crisis intensified when the economies of debt-ridden eurozone members such as Greece and Portugal crashed, requiring bailouts.

But O’Sullivan tried to put the eurozone crisis, which has since eased and only affected a handful of countries, into perspective.

“I think that if we had had 60 individual currencies, the crisis would have been far deeper and far worse,” O’Sullivan said. “I think most Europeans still believe that having a single currency between us is by far the best option versus having independent currencies.”

EU Ambassador Talks Brexit and Transatlantic Trade
European Ambassador David O’Sullivan speaks at last year’s SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, last year. O’Sullivan, who has served as ambassador to the U.S. since 2014, is scheduled to leave his post soon. Photo: EU in the US

This crisis, O’Sullivan said, helped the EU resolve “deficiencies” in its financial system and recognize the importance and success of the euro since its creation 20 years ago.

O’Sullivan also touched on the democratic backsliding taking place in certain member states, largely in response to the populist, nationalist sentiment that has swept the continent.

In recent years, Poland and Hungary have been accused of interfering in democratic institutions such as the judiciary and suppressing media. O’Sullivan said this trend could be influenced by the re-emergence of a “national identity” and a sense of “looking for certainty” when not all the “wounds of the communist era have been fully healed.”

“I think we have to be very sympathetic to the pressures and the tensions in these countries,” O’Sullivan said. “On the other hand, I think we have to remain very firm, but at the end of the day, the European Union is about fundamental values. It is about democracy, it is about the rule of law, and we have to hold countries accountable if we feel they have moved in the wrong direction.”

Another hot-button topic was transatlantic relations. O’Sullivan called the disagreement over the U.S.-led Iraq War the “lowest point of transatlantic relations” since World War II.

Under the Trump administration, relations have also reached a new low because of tensions over trade. President Trump has imposed steel and aluminum tariffs on the EU and has threatened to slap tariffs on auto imports as well, which would cause a serious rift between the U.S. and its European allies.

Trump has also entered into a heated trade war with China. O’Sullivan, speaking at a separate media roundtable in late February, said he hopes the administration realizes that the U.S. and EU share common concerns about Chinese trade practices.

“Looking at the trade and economic side of things, I think we share much of the analysis of the challenge posed by Chinese practices,” O’Sullivan said. “We had suggested from the very early days to have a collaborative approach, and that is why we set up the trilateral approach with Japan, the E.U. and the U.S. on steel — excess capacity in China on steel and aluminum, which we saw as the origin of the problem.”

At the American University discussion, O’Sullivan ended on a hopeful note, despite the current political climate.

“I’m very optimistic that we will work our way through this, and that this relationship which is still much more important for either of us than our relationship with anyone else,” O’Sullivan said.



Samantha Subin is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.




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