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European Union ambassador joins SIS dean to discuss refugee crisis, Brexit, and relations with Russia

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David O'Sullivan Discussion

David O'Sullivan, Ambassador of the European Union (EU) to the United States, visited the School of International Service (SIS) in February for a discussion with Dean James Goldgeier about the 2016 transatlantic agenda and the critical issues facing Europe—including the refugee migration crisis, Brexit, Russia, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations.

Death of the EU: Greatly Exaggerated

To begin the discussion, Ambassador O’Sullivan asserted that rumors of the death of the EU—to paraphrase Mark Twain—are greatly exaggerated.

“Without being Pollyannaish in the face of global challenges, I believe the economic view of Europe is increasingly positive,” said O’Sullivan. “The EU is the largest economy and trading bloc in the world, as well as the world’s second largest reserve currency. I think we face challenges, but we have enormous resilience as well.”

Syrian Refugee Crisis

One of the greatest challenges Europe is facing is the Syrian refugee crisis. Approximately 1.5 million displaced Syrians have fled to Europe in the past eighteen months, an influx that Europe is struggling to manage even as the numbers continue to climb.

To handle the crisis, O’Sullivan stated that Europe needs to better manage external borders; to create reception centers equipped to manage and look after large numbers of refugees seeking asylum; and, ideally, to reduce the burden on individual countries.

“The burden has fallen differentially on some member states rather than others—namely, Greece and Italy on the transit end, and Germany and Sweden on the receiving end. We also can’t expect Greece or Italy or neighboring countries in the Balkans to house hundreds of thousands of refugees for months while the files are being processed,” he declared. “Ideally, these people should be redistributed to the 28 member states to reduce the burden on individual countries. This will not easy to do, but the idea is beginning to take off.”


Another challenge is for Europe to maintain its international sanctions against Russia in the face of continued strife in Ukraine. Given that several European countries have strong business ties with Russia, Dean Goldgeier asked the ambassador how long Europe can afford to continue its sanctions.

“In my view, as long as the Minsk Protocol is not implemented, we will continue the sanctions,” O’Sullivan insisted. “Of course, relations with Russia are complex. It is true that we trade fifteen times more with Russia than you do. The sanctions are hurting us more than they hurt you, just as, if I may say so, the Iranian sanctions hurt us more than they hurt you. But we maintained the Iranian sanctions. I think we have shown in Europe that we are willing to take the economic pain when needed in order to achieve foreign policy objectives.”


Regarding “Brexit” —the possibility of the United Kingdom leaving the EU—O’Sullivan was “cautiously optimistic” that Prime Minister David Cameron and the EU could negotiate a solution.

“I think it would be a shame if Britain left the EU,” he said. “I think it would hurt the EU and the United Kingdom. But ultimately, this will be the sovereign decision of the British people. We’ll have to see how they vote in the referendum.”

Going Forward: Be Optimistic, Not Naïve

Despite the challenges Europe is facing—both outside of and within Europe—the ambassador stressed that the EU will prevail.

“Sometimes critics talk of the EU as a homogenizing force that steamrolls everyone into a one-size-fits-all package. However, I think the EU has demonstrated remarkable flexibility,” O’Sullivan argued. “Some countries are part of the euro and some are not. Some countries have very regulated labor markets, and some countries have very deregulated labor markets. I think the EU is a structure that provides for a huge amount of diversity between our member states. We should not be naïve or complacent, but I believe ultimately, we should be optimistic that the EU will continue to thrive in the years to come.”

Watch the video of the discussion.

Learn more about upcoming events at SIS.