Exit interview: EU’s envoy to Washington on navigating challenges in the transatlantic relationship

“I think this administration came into office with a clear mandate and a clear desire to disrupt existing relationships,” David O’Sullivan, the European Union’s ambassador to the United States, said of the Trump administration. (Atlantic Council)

David O’Sullivan, the European Union’s ambassador to the United States, wraps up his time in Washington at the end of February. The last two years of his tenure have been challenging ones for the transatlantic relationship. That challenge mainly comes from US President Donald J. Trump who once described the EU as a “foe.”

In an interview with the New Atlanticist, O’Sullivan discusses the challenges in the relationship as well as areas for optimism. Here are excerpts from the interview.

Q: In January, a letter to Congress from European Parliament members noted “the increasingly harmful approach from the White House” to the transatlantic relationship. What is your assessment of the relationship?

O’Sullivan: I think this administration came into office with a clear mandate and a clear desire to disrupt existing relationships. They have been very faithful to that, whether it is putting into question some of the issues around defense expenditure and NATO or putting into question the trading relationship with the European Union. This has been disruptive, but I think we also have to acknowledge that if an American administration puts these issues on the table we in Europe have to be willing to deal with that and to respond. We don’t always share the analysis, but we need a constructive engagement. The transatlantic relationship is solid and deep enough to withstand putting some of these questions on the table and finding the right answers.

Q: How is Europe responding to this challenge?

O’Sullivan: On the security front, it is more an issue for NATO and that is a discussion that is ongoing—the defense expenditure and the 2 percent target. In the European Union we have made great strides in the area of defense cooperation, which will be an important contribution to our NATO capabilities. It is very important to emphasize that trying to reinforce European cooperation is not in opposition to NATO, but actually strengthens NATO as I think Secretary General [Jens] Stoltenberg has made clear on many occasions.

On the economic and commercial side, we have engaged with President Trump. [European Commission] President [Jean-Claude] Juncker came here last July and they reached an understanding—a common agenda—on how we can address some of the issues raised by the administration and we are working our way through that at the moment.

There are some challenges, there are some disagreements, but we have structures and processes to work through that.

Q: What are some of those challenges in the relationship that keep you up at night?

O’Sullivan: I tend to sleep rather well! What would worry me over time would be a loss of a sense of a shared destiny between the United States and Europe, and specifically the European Union. That is something that we have had historically—through ties of family and kinship, through the shared experience of two world wars, the Holocaust, the rebuilding of Europe through the Marshall Plan, the strong alliance we had during the Cold War. I think some of that has been lost in a positive sense because there was the fall of Berlin Wall and the fall of the Soviet Empire.

We now need to rekindle that [bond] particularly through people-to-people contacts. The demographics of the United States are changing, Europe is changing, and there is a risk that our peoples will not feel the same sense of a shared destiny in the future as they have in the past. That is something we need to work very actively on, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Q: What’s the silver lining? What are some areas about which you are optimistic?

O’Sullivan: I continue to believe that the relationship is extremely strong through the three pillars. On the security agenda, notwithstanding some of the discussions about shared expenditure in NATO, NATO has remained an important pillar of US security and European security. We have been able to make a lot of progress in areas like counterterrorism, data protection, and even on the foreign policy field we have still a shared agenda in Afghanistan, in the Middle East. All of that is hugely positive.

On the economic and commercial side, this is the most important economic corridor in the world. We are so important economically for each other in both trade and investment. This works very well. There are trade frictions, but one of the issues about trade frictions—and this is true not just now, but historically—is that it represents a very small fraction of the total economic activity which actually goes on, on a day-to-day basis in a hugely important way, which is hugely beneficial for Europe, the European Union, and for the United States.

And, finally, on the values agenda, notwithstanding the fact that we sometimes disagree, I think we still have more in common with each other than either of us have in common with anybody else in the world. We need not to lose sight of that.

Q: Do you think that the United States could play a more constructive role on Brexit?

O’Sullivan: I think the United States can certainly not be indifferent to a family quarrel in Europe. I’m not sure there’s a huge amount that Washington can contribute to resolving this issue, which is first and foremost a domestic UK issue more than anything else. I know that the negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement have brought the focus back to Brussels, but I think most people acknowledge that the real dilemma here is a lack of clarity in the British body politic as to if they want Brexit, what kind of Brexit they want, and how that should be delivered. We have to let the British people and Parliament work this through and give them the space and time to try to do that even if the clock is ticking.

I’m not sure there is huge scope for outside intervention at this point. We understand that the United States would like Brexit, to the extent it happens, to go as smoothly as possible. That’s everyone’s objective. That was the original idea of the Withdrawal Agreement. But the extent of the political divisions in the UK is such that it is difficult for any of us to help them solve the problem until they have been able to figure out some kind of political consensus in the UK.

Q: What are the prospects for the resolution of the trade issues between Europe and the United States?

O’Sullivan: We are now working through the agenda, which the two presidents set out in that statement on July 25 with the four pillars—the pursuit of an industrial free trade agreement; reducing and eliminating tariffs on industrial goods; working on regulatory cooperation where we have just agreed to take forward a technical but important issue on conformity assessment boards, enabling American conformity assessment boards to certify products for sale in Europe; we have also discussed other more sectoral issues. The work on two specific sectors of interest—LNG and soybeans—where we have seen a huge increase in soybean exports and we have certified US soybean exports as qualifying for our sustainable fuels policy in Europe, which is another boost to soybean exports. And, finally, some joint work on the WTO where we still don’t see perfectly eye to eye, but we have done good work in the trilateral context with Japan and the US and the EU working on how better to adapt WTO rules to capture the practices of countries with a heavy state intervention in the economy.

Q: The EU has this week issued a firm statement on Iran’s missile program and its “unacceptable behavior” in the Middle East. Could you tell us more about the EU’s position on Iran and, more specifically, whether the EU can preserve the nuclear deal without the participation of the United States?

O’Sullivan: The nuclear deal was something which was internationally mandated by the United Nations. Six countries and the EU got together to negotiate. The decision was taken at that time, many years ago, to negotiate only on the nuclear deal. This was not because we were unaware that there were other issues with Iran in terms of Iran’s unhelpful behavior in the region, its support for terrorism, their missile program, which is the subject of a separate UN resolution. But it was decided that it was in everyone’s best interest to focus exclusively on the nuclear threat because that was seen as the single-most dangerous. We believe that the JCPOA [the Iran nuclear deal] delivered on that.

We regret that this administration has now decided to withdraw [from the nuclear deal]. We believe that as long as Iran respects the terms of the deal—in other words, that they continue to renounce definitively the possibility of acquiring or developing nuclear weapons—and as long as they are shown to be in verification by the very stringent inspections undertaken by the International Atomic Energy Agency, that they are then entitled to the quid pro quo of the deal, which is sanctions relief. Therefore, we believe that legitimate trade and commerce with Iran is part and parcel of that deal.

We regret the US decision, but we hope that just as we respect their decision to withdraw, they will respect our right to continue to work within the terms of the deal which has been sanctioned and approved by the United Nations and all the other participants.

We are, of course, just as concerned as this administration by the other issues and we are working on those. We have recently introduced new sanctions for the activity related to terrorist behavior in Europe—the plots which were uncovered, we have strongly condemned the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, we still have sanctions on human rights issues and non-nuclear issues.

The fact that we are supportive of the deal doesn’t mean we are close partners of Iran or that we think everything that Iran does is correct. Quite the contrary. We have many points of disagreement with Iran and its policies, which we will continue express and to act upon.

Q: Can the special purpose vehicle save the deal?

O’Sullivan: One of the consequences of the withdrawal of the US is the re-imposition of sanctions. When the US does sanctions they can be quite wide-ranging and far-reaching. Companies trying to deal with Iran on issues which are not subject to Iran find that it can be quite cumbersome and complicated.

That was why the special vehicle was designed to provide a streamlined means of, particularly, trading with Iran in humanitarian or other goods, which are not covered by sanctions. This vehicle has now been created, but the full technical details need to be worked out. It is a creation of three countries—France, the UK, and Germany. I think it will be open to other countries to join.

It is essentially a mechanism designed to allow European companies undergoing legitimate trade to do so in workable conditions, which is not currently the case.

Q: What has been the US response to the SPV?

O’Sullivan: We have had good discussions on the sanctions issue. We have been able to agree a number of exemptions to the sanctions to take into account European concerns. This will be an ongoing issue between us in the coming months and years as to how this is done in practice.

Q: What has been your most satisfying accomplishment during your time in Washington?

O’Sullivan: The sense of partnership with the member states is something with which I am very pleased. Washington is the capital of bilateralism. We have twenty-eight ambassadors from our member states, which all send their best and brightest diplomats who are very actively engaged in promoting the interests of their own countries. Nonetheless, we have managed to harness a common sense of a European approach to key issues, whether that is trade, Iran, or other issues.  I have been very, very grateful for the very strong support which I have been given by my fellow EU ambassadors and for the excellent cooperation we have at all levels between the delegation and the member state embassies. We have an intense process of coordination. This, for me, is one of the great sources of satisfaction.

The other, and I claim no credit for me, was the meeting between President Trump and President Juncker, which was a remarkable moment where these two men managed to find common ground and common agenda in circumstances where many doubted that could happen.

Q: What has been the most frustrating challenge during your time in Washington?

O’Sullivan: I don’t know if it’s frustration, but the biggest challenge of the EU ambassador is to explain what that means. Of course, there are a lot of people in Washington who are well informed, but more generally there are a lot of people who don’t get how you can have an EU ambassador and twenty-eight national ambassadors, what’s the division of labor, and how does that work. It’s a constant challenge of trying to explain how the EU works and how sovereign nation states coexist with an EU collective position and action. It is a rather unique construction in political science and even historically. The challenge is to be able to explain that in relatively simple terms.

Q: Have you seen a change in the general public’s understanding of the EU?

O’Sullivan: I think there is a growing awareness. To a certain extent, some of the crises we went through—the euro crisis and the financial crisis and even the trade conflicts we have had—have brought the European Union to the fore. Awareness and consciousness of the EU has grown, not always to my credit but rather because of events.

Q: What will you be looking for in President Trump’s State of the Union address tonight?

O’Sullivan: It is entirely up to the president to decide what messages he feels he wants to give. Obviously, we hope that there will be a continued recognition of the importance of the transatlantic relationship for America’s security and prosperity.

Q: As you close out your term in Washington what advice would you give you successor?

O’Sullivan: My successor, Stavros Lambrinidis, knows America extremely well. He is a very able diplomat and former politician. I don’t think Stavros needs any advice from me. I think he will be his own ambassador and he will create his own style. I’m sure he will do a great job.

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

David A. Wemer is assistant director, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.