Former European Union ambassador to the United States lectures on Transatlantic Alliance
Aaron Park | Thursday, September 19, 2019
Former European Union (EU) Ambassador to the United States David O’Sullivan highlighted nationalism, climate change and migration as key issues facing Europe at his Nanovic Forum Lecture, titled “Europe and the United States: Friends and Allies, or Rivals?” on Wednesday evening. O’Sullivan, who has also formerly served as the former secretary-general of the European Commission, also addressed key ways in which the Europe-U.S. relationship has changed in recent years.
“We are going through, in my opinion, a profoundly dangerous moment in the western world in terms of our politics,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re having this on both sides of the Atlantic, and I hope we will find each other at the end of this an unreconstructed believer in the importance of the transatlantic relationship.”
The speech was the centerpiece of the 2019 Nanovic Forum Lecture, an annual event held by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies to spotlight issues surrounding European politics. Past invitees to the event include Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the former Director-General of CERN, and Polish film director Krzysztof Zanussi.
O’Sullivan addressed several of the major political issues facing the EU and its relationship with the United States. He singled out the rise of right-wing populist movements in both Europe and the United States as well as the changing demographics of the United States as reasons why the transatlantic relationship between the two entities needs to be discussed and potentially reevaluated.
“We need to reinvent this relationship for every generation,” O’Sullivan said. “We need to explain why African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans have an interest in this relationship even if their ancestors didn’t come from there. It’s very easy if your ancestors came from Ireland and moved over and backwards and forwards, or from Scotland or Italy. The fact is that we share values and interests which are not dependent on connection of kith and kin and family, but rather on shared value.”
O’Sullivan identified climate change and the debate over military spending as critical points of contention between the United States and the EU.
“The security and economic implications of climate change are massive,” O’Sullivan said. “Climate-change migration, climate-change poverty, climate-change conflict over scarce resources and water, desertification. Climate change has the potential to dramatically change the way this planet functions, not just ecologically and not just in terms of changing weather patterns, but actual conflict and warfare.”
Despite the political issues he has previously described, O’Sullivan remarked on the relative strength and stability of the EU as a whole, and downplayed several points of concern.
“Yes we have problems, yes we have some challenges, but actually life goes on pretty normally and people are still living pretty well,” he said. “We have pretty good healthcare, education systems, social welfare systems, the economy’s doing reasonably well. I’m not saying we don’t have challenges, but it doesn’t actually feel like the place is falling apart in the slightest. The impression sometimes gained on this side of the Atlantic is, in my view, a little too negative.”
On military spending, O’Sullivan noted that the combined military expenditure of the EU was second-largest in the world, greater than that of China or Russia. The problem, O’Sullivan said, lay in the decentralization of European military power. O’Sullivan also mentioned the EU’s contributions to overseas development, which he said constituted 60% of all overseas development spending.
“That is a burden that we bear financially which is not shared by the United States because you’re spending money on defense, which I understand,” he said.
On migrants, O’Sullivan noted that the size and population of the EU made the intake of one or two million refugees a less daunting task than some critics would claim.
O’Sullivan delivered his lecture in a filled-to-capacity seminar room in Jenkins-Nanovic Hall. Student attendees said they appreciated his insights about the Transatlantic Alliance.
“I really liked the points where he highlighted how, from the European perspective, there’s still a deep sense of gratitude,” Kyle Dorshorst, a sophomore who attended the event, said. “There’s the shared history of a struggle and of liberation. I think in the moments when there are some divisions, if we can turn back to that history that’ll help us continue to work together heading into the future.”
The former ambassador will also be on campus Thursday and Friday, meeting with students and faculty studying international politics, including Dorshorst.
“He obviously has a lot of experience negotiating a lot of complex personalities and managing different interests in order to read a consensus,” Dorshorst said. “I feel like that will be really important going forward in solving some of the world’s biggest issues.”
O’Sullivan will also guest lecture Professor Andrew Gould’s European politics class on Thursday. Professor William C. Donahue, the director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, said students in that class have a unique opportunity to learn from O’Sullivan and his expertise.
“[O’Sullivan] was a guest speaker in a class that we’re offering at the Institute called the ‘Washington D.C. Seminar on Transnational European Studies’ and he gave us a 60-minute overview of the current issues in the EU, so I know what’s on [Gould]’s mind,” he said. “His students are extremely lucky to have probably the world expert on contemporary issues in the EU.”
Donahue said he hoped the lecture would lead to increased student interest in the politics and problems of modern Europe.
“There is a cultural lag that Europe is more of the place that we go for vacation, to look at castles and libraries and float down the Rhine and drink good wine,” he said. “All those things are fine, but I think sometimes people are hesitant to acknowledge that Europe is a place of great strife.”
Donahue said the United States needs a strong Europe in order to help maintain stability in the world.
“We need Europe to succeed in terms of its peacekeeping, in terms of its economics, because they’re a hugely important partner for us,” he said. “We need the stability, we need to know that it’s going to be okay, that this free-trade zone which took decades to build up is going to continue at a high level. The overall relevance of this relationship becomes clear.”