Interview with David O’Sullivan

His Excellency David O’Sullivan is the EU Ambassador to the United States. Prior to this he served as the chief operating officer of the European Union’s diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service, and as the Secretary-General of the European Commission between June 2000 and November 2005. He is an economics and sociology graduate of Trinity College, Dublin.

How did you get to where you are today?

I studied at the College of Europe, went back to Dublin and worked in the Irish Civil Service in the Department of Foreign Affairs for a couple of years. [I] did a competition for the European Commission, was accepted and was offered a job which I accepted on the basis that I would come to Brussels for two years, gain some european experience and then go back and make my career in the Department of Foreign Affairs. And then, after two years, I was offered a job by the commission to go to Tokyo and, one way or another, I ended up making my career in the European system rather than the Irish system.

Who was the most influential person in your life and why?

When I saw that question I tried to think whether I had a more interesting answer than what I’m going to say, which is my father and I suppose a very obvious choice.

My father was in the Irish military [and was] a Chief of Staff of the army and served very often and very frequently with the United Nations. Apart from the fact that your father is always a very important influence on your life, the significance was perhaps that, through my father, I was introduced at a very early stage to international civil service and exposed to [it]. He spent time in the Congo; he spent time in Cyprus – I lived for a while with him in Cyprus and saw the whole UN international administration and found it absolutely fascinating and was determined, in one way or another, that that was what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t necessarily know whether I wanted to work for the UN or the EU and that’s probably why I ended up in the Department of Foreign Affairs. That strong sense of international public service was something that was acquired from my father.

If there was one thing that you could change about the Irish political system, what would it be and why?

Hopefully that we only run European referenda once. I think that’s perhaps a rather whimsical remark.

I am an admirer of the Irish political system, but I sometimes think that the public debate in Ireland is a little too closed; as if somehow Ireland can still uniquely choose its own destiny, which is not even the case for very large,and economically more self-sufficient countries, than Ireland.

I would like to see greater recognition of the fact that we’re part of a European ecosystem, and in turn part of a global eco system which imposes constraints on how we choose to organise ourselves; how competitive we are; how we make our way in the world. And I think that’s probably not sufficiently present in some of the discussion at home because people think we just have to decide something and it will be implement, whereas in practice even if we were not members of the European Union that wouldn’t be the case. I mean that we are part of a globalised world and our choices come with constraints. I think that’s part of something that needs to be more openly discussed and debated.

So you believe there’s a need for a stronger European perspective within public debate?

Well, I sometimes get frustrated with the European debate at home, and I think 40 years on people still haven’t fully understood that Brussels is not some foreign place where faceless bureaucrats impose decisions on an unsuspecting Irish public. It’s actually a remarkably transparent place, where decisions get take by elected ministers sitting around a table and elected members of the European Parliament, where we have a stake and a voice.

And Europe certainly has brought huge advantage to Ireland; it has brought some constraints on policy-making but on balance the outcome has been hugely positive. Whereas I sometimes think that people take the positive too much for granted and attribute a lot of what has gone wrong to some faceless dictate from Brussels, which is not at all an accurate portrayal of how things work.

What advice would you give to a young university graduate from Ireland?

Well, my own son has just graduated as a doctor and my daughter is in her third year of law, so it’s not an abstract question for me. I think that life is tough these days because the labour market is tight, everywhere and not just in Ireland. When I look around in Belgium, and talk with colleagues from France whose children are trying to make it, it is tough.

The first thing I’d say is that work experience really counts. And these days some sort of postgraduate qualification has become almost as important as a university degree in my day, which was more or less what the leaving certificate was in my parents day. And so probably, if you’re really talking about a recent graduate, you probably need a postgraduate qualification if you want to build on that. But the main thing is to get into the workforce as soon as possible and gain experience in any job as a starting point .

The other thing I’d say is languages. As native English speakers we’re under less pressure to learn other languages and that, I think, is a huge disadvantage in the modern labour market where knowledge of foreign languages – whether European languages or Chinese or Russian or Arabic p is a huge plus. And, when I look at many of the young people around Brussels who are interested in working in the institutions, many of them speak effortlessly three, four, five languages – which really is a huge disadvantage to many of the English or Irish graduate, who frankly often struggle to speak one foreign language.

What would you view as the most valuable learning experience or role in your career to date?

If I had only one thing to mention I’d say it was probably my four years in Japan because I think that really was a unique eye-opener on globalisation, and on Europe and Ireland’s unique place in the world. It dramatically changed my outlook on the future of Ireland and the future of Europe, and of how important the emerging economic of Asia and Latin America were going to be for the 21st Century. I think that really was a life changing experience which has marked nearly everything I’ve done since, whether it was working as the Secretary-General of the Commission, or as operating officer of the External Action Service.

Probably the most fascinating experience was when I was Chef de Cabinet for Romano Prodi and helped the President put together the Commission in 1999, after the fall of the Santer commission. The months I spent with Romano Prodi deciding the different portfolios, and restructuring the commission, that was an absolutely unique political experience for someone who had been a civil servant for most of my life. That was also extremely fascinating.

The EU Elections in May saw a rise in the number of independents and eurosceptics elected to the European Parliament. How do you think this will effect EU policymaking?

Well, I think we have to accept that the European elections reflected a great deal of unhappiness, and even anger and frustration, on the part of the electorate. On the other hand, we also have to realise that the vast bulk of people voted for parties [who] are extremely supportive of the process of EU integration. So you have a sort of double message coming out of the elections, and I think that one of the challenges for politics for the next few years is how to interpret this. I agree with those who say you cannot be complacent and ignore the rise of euroscepticism, but on the other hand you cannot ignore that there is still huge support for mainstream parties and mainstream policy-making.

So I think we need a little bit of time to digest what the messages of the voting are, and also what proportion is actually targeted at Europe and what percentage of it is targeted at domestic unhappiness. Because a lot of the voting in European elections is not so much about European Issues as it is about a sort of mini referendum on national politics.

So there’s no room for complacency, or underestimating the extent to which there is a disconnect between Brussels and the wider public and that message needs to be addressed. On the other hand I think we should avoid falling into the mindset that everyone in Europe is very unhappy with how the EU functions because in fact, the mainstream parties who are supportive of mainstream EU polices overwhelmingly won the majority.

In relation to EU expansion and membership, what rate do you think it will continue at or do you think it is likely we will, in fact, see the exiting of countries from the EU?

I think it’s highly unlikely that we will see countries exiting. I know there is a debate in the UK, and possibly even a referendum in a couple of years, but I don’t believe there is any push elsewhere in the EU to leave. We’ve just come through one of the worst economic and financial crisis in living memory, and even in those countries most affected – Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy – I don’t think anyone ever suggested that leaving the Euro, let along leaving the EU, would make things better.

As for further enlargement: we have a commitment to the Western Balkans; we have a commitment to Turkey, even if the negotiations are difficult I think sooner or later those negotiations will succeed and that enlargement will take place. What the future will bring in terms of new enlargement it’s hard to say. It’s clear that as long as the economic situation is as hard as it is, further enlargement might be a difficult sell domestically within the EU. But that situation could change quite dramatically when the economic situation picks up, as I’m quite sure it will.

The EU is an economic powerhouse yet remains politically discordant. Do you think a more politically unified EU is likely, or even possible, in the long term?

I’m not sure I’d agree that the EU is politically discordant. When you look at how the EU reacts to international political issues there is a remarkable degree of commonality from member states on most of the major international issues of the days.

There are of course divergences but when I look at the way in which I was involved in political cooperation back in the seventies, when it took weeks and weeks just to get member states to take a common position on a resolution in the UN, and I now look at how on a daily basis we negotiate and harmonise the position of Member States on a much wider range of international issues without great difficulty, there is a really solid reflex of first looking for a common position before people articulate a national position – that, in my view, is the direction in which we will continue to move.

President Barroso likes to say that, “Scale will count in the 21st Century” and, if Ireland or the European Countries wish to shape the direction of political events in the 21st century, we will only do it through greater European unity and speaking with one voice. On our own we will be forced to accept a world shaped by other voices, and other countries more powerful and populous than our own individually.

You have recently been appointed EU Ambassador to the United States. How would you describe the EU-US relationship and what do you think biggest challenge between the two regions will be during your tenure?

I think this is probably the most important relationship in the world, that [of] between the EU and the US. The transatlantic corridor is the most vibrant and the most economic corridor in the world. People talk about Asia; our relationship with Asia; America’s relationship with China. But we should never forget that American companies make more money out of their investments in the Netherlands, or Belgium, than they do out of their investments in China. Two-way investment across the Atlantic creates 15 million jobs in the US and the EU. And we are very important trading partners.

In addition, we have a huge commonality of political views through the NATO alliance obviously, but also through our shared values of commitment to democracy, to human rights and respect for international order. And I think recent events in the Ukraine have only underlined the importance of those values which bring us together. And I think that relationship is going to continue to deepen and grow in importance, even as we grow and develop our relationship with other partners in the world. The United States has made an important pivot towards Asia. But we also have hugely important relations with Asia, and we have strong relations with Africa and with Latin America – Latin America is of course a strong trading partner for the United States. So I think we are destined to continue to be extremely strong partners.

The challenge I think in the short term is to conclude the Transatlantic Trade and Partnership negotiations, which has the potential to add considerably to the GDP of Europe and the US, and indeed to employment possibility on both side of the Atlantic at a time when both economies need that. So that’s one very important element which we have to address in the next 18 months or so.

Alongside that, we will also need to strengthen our political alliance between the United States and us in the defence of our common values.