This interview took place at the University of Notre Dame on Friday, September 20, 2019, as part of David O’Sullivan’s visit to the University to deliver the lecture “Europe and the United States: Friends and Allies, or Rivals?” at the 2019 Nanovic Forum. Enzo Ambrose ’21, who led the interview, majors in political science and is a member of the Nanovic Institute's Transnational European Studies Seminar in Washington D.C.
Ambassador O'Sullivan lectures to class during Nanovic Forum visit
Enzo Ambrose: Thank you for speaking with me today.
David O’Sullivan: No problem, my pleasure.
EA: Concerning Brexit, what do you believe is the best-case scenario, given that there doesn’t seem to be much consensus between the Britons and Brussels at the moment?
DO: It depends on what you mean by best-case scenario. I think the biggest problem lies in the UK itself, where there is clearly no consensus about whether Brexit or what kind of Brexit. The result of the referendum was clear in the sense there was a majority voting to leave, 52 to 48. Not a massive majority, but a majority. But, to be very honest, I don’t think that most people voting to leave had a shared view of what leaving meant. Some people clearly did understand and felt strongly that they wanted to leave the European Union. Others were told, you can leave the European Union but you can still have all the benefits. And I think the dilemma that we have faced from the European side is, faced with lack of clarity on the British side as to exactly what they want, it has been very difficult to find a common understanding about how we go forward.
Under the terms of the European treaty, when a country wants to leave you have to enter a withdrawal agreement, which paves the way then for a new future relationship once the country has left. We were able to negotiate such an agreement with the UK, but, unfortunately, they were unable to get it through Parliament. It’s important to understand that the reason they couldn’t get it through Parliament was opposition from two sides: those who thought the withdrawal agreement still kept the UK somehow too closely aligned to the EU, and those that felt the opposite—that they were fundamentally opposed to Brexit anyway. The optimum solution would be that the British are able to decide amongst themselves what it is they want. Do they definitively want to leave? I imagine that is the case, but there is talk of a possible second referendum. Assuming they want to leave, what kind of withdrawal agreement do they want, and in particular how are they going to be able to get that approved through their own Parliament. Ideally, what we would like from the rest of Europe is that we can sign off on the withdrawal agreement which we’ve already negotiated, and then move forward to negotiate a new relationship with the United Kingdom once they leave. Only time will tell whether that is possible.
EA: Do you believe that the fate of Ireland is being adequately discussed in the Brexit negotiations, and do you believe that the murmurings of a united Ireland are likely to come true?
DO: To take the second part of your question first, I think this is not about a united Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which was the basis of the peace and reconciliation we’ve had in Northern Ireland and the end to the violence, very clearly states there will be no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the agreement of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. And there are mechanisms for determining whether such a majority exists. That is a separate issue from dealing with the consequences of Brexit.
The dilemma of the consequence of Brexit is that it potentially creates the need for a hard border to return between the north of Ireland and the rest of the island. This was something which disappeared through joint membership in the European Union and which facilitated and underpinned the peace process. The previous British government under Theresa May shared the commitment of the Irish government and of the EU 27—that we would see no return to a hard border. The government of Prime Minister Johnson appears to take a slightly different view, which is not to say that there will be no border, but that there will be no checks at the border, which is not the same thing.
This is creating difficulties. There was a mechanism in the withdrawal agreement that provided a guarantee that if no other alternative arrangements could be found, there would be still no hard border. The present administration in the UK would like to eliminate this, but they have so far not been able to come forward with concrete proposals about how you could achieve the same result, i.e., no border, no return to a hard border, with a different proposal. For the time being, we are blocked—that the EU is insisting in retaining this backstop, this guarantee. The UK government says they want to see it removed but have not yet been able to come forward with concrete proposals as to how that could be done.
EA: Pivoting to immigration into the EU and migration within the EU, how do you represent the will of all of the EU member nations when there’s not a clear consensus on how migrants should be arriving and whether there should be so many migrants arriving in the first place?
DO: When you talk about immigration into the European Union, I think there are two distinct issues. First, there is the issue of refugees and asylum seekers who have legal guarantees under the UN Convention from the early fifties, which is an important legal obligation on the EU and all our member states. Second, you have the issue of economic migration of people who are not necessarily fleeing persecution or threats to their lives, but would just like to come to Europe to have a better future for themselves and their family and to work.
In both of these cases, this is not a matter that is decided at the European level. It is decided at a national level—extra-European migration is not a European competence. The European Union guarantees the freedom of movement within Europe of all European citizens, and European law underpins that. While we have some rules about how we treat asylum seekers, it remains a matter of national competence. That’s the first point.
The second point: we don’t control the number of people who turn up at the frontier. This is a product of regional conflict and disturbance as we saw a particular outpouring of refugees after the conflict in Syria. There are many conflicts in Africa and elsewhere. There are 65 million people displaced globally; 25 million of them live in the European neighborhood. And many of these people are going to continue to seek shelter in Europe.
The dilemma we have is that if you leave that exclusively to be the responsibility of those countries that are geographically in the front lines—Italy, Greece, Malta, Spain—this is not fair. In fact, the people arriving in these countries don’t necessarily want to stay in those countries. They want to get to the EU as a whole. And this is, as you rightly say, a difficult dilemma which we have not yet been able to build a consensus upon with our member states.
But I think we’ve made a lot of progress. The number of arrivals has slowed down as we have worked with the countries of origin and the transit countries to try to reduce the outflow, particularly through increased investment in creating new opportunities for employment in their countries of origin. We are also working on schemes that would enable some redistribution of the people who are arriving in the front-line member states to other countries. It’s a very difficult issue. It’s going to continue to challenge us for many years. There are differing views amongst our member states as to how this issue should be dealt with, but I think we’ve made a lot of progress and I’m sure this will be a high priority for the next Commission.
Enzo Ambrose '21, political science major
EA: As you know, today there’s a global climate strike and this climate crisis is seen as one of the driving factors for migration, and it will continue to be a driving factor in the future. Do you believe the EU could be a global leader in climate advocacy and in manufacturing the solution to the climate crisis? We’ve heard talk of the US having manufacturing solar panels and that other green technologies underpin a new wave of employment here in the US. Do you believe that the EU could become a leader in that sense?
DO: I think Europe has already shown huge leadership. We have reduced our emissions dramatically since the nineties and have set ourselves very ambitious targets for the coming years. We’ve demonstrated that it is not incompatible with economic growth or with employment growth because we’ve achieved all of those things simultaneously. I would also agree that climate-friendly policies or moving to a greener economy or less use of fossil fuels is actually a commercial and competitive advantage because it’s the direction in which we all need to go. I think it’s well-recognized in Europe, and countries which are investing in mastering the technologies for renewable energy or for carbon-free or low-carbon activities are definitely going to make money out of that.
The other thing we are also heavily involved with is our development assistance; the European Union, and its member states, is the largest donor of development assistance. We’re helping countries who are particularly affected by climate change to mitigate those consequences, to have more climate change resilience, and to help them to cope with some of the consequences. But you’re absolutely right, migration caused by climate change is something that is going to increase and countries are going to need a lot of help with that.
EA: As ambassador to the United States, you interacted with both the previous administration and the current one: what were the biggest challenges you faced with the Obama administration compared to the Trump administration?
DO: During my time in Washington, I had very good contacts with both administrations. I certainly couldn’t complain about the level of access which we had with the Trump administration. But, like everyone, we suffered from the fact that firstly it took a long time to fill many of the posts, and secondly there’s been a fairly continuous high turnover of staff, which has made it difficult to have the kind of ongoing relationship with people in the State Department or the White House. We’re not alone in facing this challenge. It’s a challenge for all of America’s interlocutors. But we’ve tried to work around it, and I must say the biggest change of course is that President Trump came into office with an agenda, to say the least of it, 180 degrees the opposite of what President Obama had been pursuing. Whether it was on climate change or trade or the Iran deal or Middle East peace, we had to deal with an America which was now taking a completely different policy stance and one with which we did not necessarily agree. We of course had to adjust and recalibrate to face that situation, which is what we’ve tried to do. Of course, this is what happens in democracies when you get election results which reverse a previous policy, and we all support democracy and have to respect the outcome of elections. This is now the new American policy; we have to try and work with it as best we can.
EA: On the Iran deal, do you believe that the EU is able to preserve the deal, considering that Iran is starting to break certain aspects?
DO: It is true that Iran is now opening up its commitment to the deal. I think we have to be very clear where the fault lies. The fault lies in the U.S. decision to withdraw from the deal—not only to withdraw, which was of course the right of the United States, but to use sanctions to make it impossible for other signatories to the deal to deliver on their side of the bargain, in particular the Europeans. The bargain with Iran was that they would accept never to acquire nuclear weapons and to open their nuclear work to unprecedented scrutiny and inspection. In return, they would get sanctions relief and they would get some economic benefit.
This administration has done all it can to prevent Iran from getting any of that economic benefit. Unfortunately, such is the weight of the American economy on the global economy and the role of the dollar, the sanctions have dissuaded many European companies from doing business with Iran. This has made Iran feel, not without justification, that they are not getting the benefits that they were promised and therefore they no longer need to respect the deal either. This is a situation which unfortunately has been directly created by the decision of the United States, and the consequence is the way Iran is now behaving—which we regret and which we are critical of, but it is at least partially understandable.
We believed that it was vital to keep the nuclear deal but to not see that as the end of our engagement with Iran because there are many other issues with Iran which pose challenges: their missile program, their support for terrorism in the region, their generally unhelpful behavior in the region. But we think we would have been better placed to address those issues if we had maintained the nuclear deal, as the most important thing is to make sure that Iran does not acquire or develop nuclear weapons. Since the administration does not agree, unfortunately we do not have a shared view on how best we can address the issue of Iran.
EA: I have a more lighthearted question: I’m a Belgian citizen, and you said that you spent a lot of time in Brussels. What has been the best part of living in Brussels for so long?
DO: I’m a huge fan of Brussels and Belgium. I regard Belgium as my adopted country. Brussels is a great city. I mean it’s a city, which is on a great scale. I come from Dublin, which has around a million inhabitants, Brussels has around the same. But, at the same time, it is a big enough city that it has huge cultural activities, social activities. It’s a city with a lot of history, great restaurants, great bars, great social life. My children were born in Brussels, went to school there. There’s so much to like about the city. It’s a comfortable, well-run, well-functioning city with a lot of history, a lot of amenities, and it’s been a great pleasure living there.
EA: And they have wonderful waffles! Thank you for talking with me. Have a nice day, and enjoy the rest of your visit to Notre Dame.
DO: Thank you. Take care, and good luck with your studies.