Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.


Last week, David O’Sullivan left Washington. For the past four years, he served as the European Union’s ambassador to the United States. It was a dramatic period of time during which he was involved in tense nuclear negotiations, transatlantic skirmishes over trade and an awkward diplomatic spat that saw his status as an envoy to the American capital “downgraded” by the Trump administration — before it was corrected this month.

O’Sullivan had to navigate a new White House that no longer saw the European Union as the staunch ally previous administrations have long considered it. But he remains optimistic about the depth of “goodwill” for Europe in Washington.

“I am never asking for Americans to be unequivocal cheerleaders of the European Union or its policies,” he told Today’s WorldView in a one-on-interview at the E.U. delegation’s K Street offices. “But America can only wish for this project one way or the other to succeed or continue to succeed. America has a real national stake in the European Union.”

The interview below was edited for length and clarity.

TWV: This administration makes no secret of its disdain for multilateral institutions like the European Union. President Trump cheered Brexit. How tough was it adjusting from the Obama years to Trump?

David O’Sullivan: In football parlance, you would say, “It’s a game of two halves.” Trump was elected on a platform of disruption, and he didn’t hide the fact during the campaign that he felt the existing tissue of international arrangements and alliances didn’t serve American interests. And he has delivered on that skepticism.

I’m not going to pretend that it was easy or comfortable, particularly for those of us who are passionate believers in the fact that this world order, whatever its defects, did actually deliver good outcomes for all of us, particularly for America. But the administration doesn’t share that view, and the challenge not just for European diplomats, but all of America’s allies and partners, is to engage in the most constructive way possible.

Last year, the E.U. and United States were embroiled in trade tensions, provoked in part by this administration labeling allies in Europe as “national security threats.” Things seemed to calm down only after a visit from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to Washington. Is there the risk of new tariffs?

The risk is still there. As far as we’re concerned, the understanding that was reached between Trump and Juncker at the White House is very clear. As long as the work on that statement continues, neither side will introduce new tariffs. I’m not saying that we’ve solved all the problems by any means, but we’ve found ways with which we can address differences and work through them.

One area where the differences remain vast is over Iran. You were in Washington as the nuclear deal came into being and have now seen the White House attempt to unravel it by withdrawing and reimposing sanctions on Iran.

For me, this deal was actually a huge triumph of intelligent multilateral diplomacy. It was chaired by the E.U. and brought together the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany in an unprecedented effort of negotiation to find a way through a technically incredibly difficult issue. I still think it is a fantastic deal. I think it could and maybe yet will serve as a model for any other nonproliferation situations.

It didn’t solve all the problems with Iran, but it never set out to do that. I think most of the people involved always thought that if this succeeded, you might move on to address the other issues through a similar negotiation.

The tragedy of the American withdrawal from the agreement is that it has set back addressing the other issues, because now we’re still trying to keep [the nuclear deal] going, and it has diluted the focus on the other issues. For us, the withdrawal of the United States remains a big disappointment.

In December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech in Brussels where he pejoratively dismissed the E.U.’s supposedly out-of-touch “bureaucrats.” What do you make of this common political message — the idea that the European Union reflects the will of metropolitan elites over the national interests of its citizens?

It’s simply not true. There are two important realities that I constantly try to hammer home here. One is that it’s not unelected bureaucrats who make the decisions in the European Union. It’s the democratically elected representatives of our member states, and it’s the democratically elected European Parliament, which by the way is about to have direct elections in May. All our decisions are taken with very thorough democratic accountability and review.

The second thing, and I say this as a European, is that the European Union is not about the death of the nation-state. It’s about allowing the nation-state to better flourish by having a framework of cooperation that delivers better outcomes for our citizens than would be the case if our member states acted separately.

My European identity is complementary to my Irish identity — not a substitute to it. I think that’s the strong view of all Europeans. And Ireland has never had a stronger international profile or a stronger sense of national identity than we’ve had since we joined the European Union. It has amplified our sense of self in ways that the claustrophobic bilateral relationship with Britain perhaps didn’t permit.

Speaking of which, what has the lurch toward Brexit meant for the E.U.?

The U.K. is a part of Europe, has contributed hugely to the European Union, and I think the idea that they would leave is something to be deeply regretted. But they’ve taken their decision and we have to work it through. It is interesting that today, support for the European Union is at an all-time high, as well as support for the euro. One of the things that has emerged from the Brexit debate is that suddenly, people are recognizing all the things the U.K. is losing by leaving.

But there’s genuine discontent, still. We’re seeing populist protests in various countries, and far-right or anti-establishment parties across the continent are expected to do well in the May elections.

The polls still show that at least 70 percent of Europeans will vote for basically centrist parties. I think this narrative about the rise of populism needs to be seen in context. I remember the recent results for the [far-right] Sweden Democrats — people made it sound like it’s the march of the right. But they got 18 percent of the vote.

I’m absolutely not saying that there isn’t an issue, that there isn’t a growth of these anti-establishment, populist parties. But it is not quite such a rise in the polls as the reporting makes it seem. The European Union is a democratically inclusive project, and I don’t think that’s going to fundamentally change, because that’s where the center of gravity remains.

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.