Europe’s Irish presence in the transatlantic corridor

David O’Sullivan, the new EU ambassador to the US, is assuming the role at an important political moment

Sitting in his office in the European External Action Services (EEAS) headquarters in central Brussels, David O’Sullivan apologises for the bareness of the room. Most of his belongings have already been shipped to Washington, he explains. The distinctive blue flag of the European Union is still there, however, soon to be joined by the stars and stripes of the US flag as the Churchtown native prepares to take up his new role as EU ambassador.

O’ Sullivan is in many ways the archetypal Brussels bureaucrat, having spent almost 35 years at the European Union, including a spell at the top of the European Commission.

He joined the EU from the department of foreign affairs in 1979, part of the first wave of Irish people who joined following Ireland’s accession in 1973. “It was the usual story,” he says. “I thought I’d go to Brussels for two years and then return to Ireland, but I ended up being offered, out of the blue, the chance to go to Tokyo. I spent four years there, and loved it. To go to Japan and see what was happening there at the time was an eye-opener in terms of Europe’s place in the world.”

On returning to Brussels he was appointed to the cabinet of Irish commissioner Peter Sutherland. He swiftly moved up the ranks, working with Pádraig Flynn for a spell before being appointed as director general of the European Commission's education and training division in 1999.


A year later he was appointed by Romano Prodi as secretary general of the commission, the executive's top job, and was succeeded by another Irish EU official, Catherine Day, during the Barroso commission. O'Sullivan then moved to DG Trade, the commission's trade division, working closely with EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson.

It was there that O'Sullivan met British commissioner Catherine Ashton, who succeeded Mandelson in the final year of his mandate.

When Ashton was appointed as the EU’s first foreign-policy chief a year later, O’ Sullivan went with her to set up the EU’s new foreign-policy wing, the EEAS. Earlier this year he was appointed by Ashton as EU ambassador to the US.

O’Sullivan assumes the role at an important moment in EU-US relations. The increasingly dangerous international picture, from Ukraine to the Middle East, has renewed calls for a strengthening of transatlantic security and defence co-operation, despite continuing US frustration at low European spending on Nato and fears that the Obama administration has sidelined Europe in its pivot towards Asia. The threat to energy security in Europe, and the US energy boom boosted by the shale bonanza, has also focused attention on potential energy co-operation between the two blocs.

Trade deal

But it is the EU-US trade deal that is likely to dominate the first few years of O’Sullivan’s mandate. While there have previously been attempts to form a transatlantic free-trade zone, the

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Package

(TTIP) is the first time formal negotiations have been initiated. Launched during the Irish presidency of the Council of the European Union 18 months ago, the agreement could give a €120 billion boost to the EU economy annually, the EU estimates.

With tariffs already relatively low between the two blocs, much of the focus of TTIP is on removing barriers by standardising regulations, opening up public procurement markets and tackling the thorny issue of exporting goods such as agricultural products.

But the deal has hit significant public opposition across Europe, featuring in the European election campaigns in May in a number of countries, not least Germany, where the National Security Agency spying scandal severely damaged relations between Berlin and Washington.

Fears about all manner of issues, from the public ownership of the National Health Service in Britain to the possible arrival of chlorine-washed chicken on European shores, have taken hold in the public consciousness. There has also been a call for greater transparency from EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, one which, in part, led to the declassification of the EU’s negotiating mandate earlier this month.

Does O’ Sullivan feel he has lost public support for the process? “Look, I think this is profoundly important for our respective economies,” he says. “We talk about the rise of Asia, about European investment in China, about US investment in China, and so on, but the reality is that we are much more heavily invested in each other’s economy than either of us are in any other economy. The transatlantic corridor is still the most important economic corridor in the world, by a long shot. I think there’s a huge economic opportunity in this trade agreement, and frankly very little downside risk to either economy, because we are both very open economies already.”

Concerns about food safety and standards have emerged as a focus for discontent on the European side. The issue has long been a bone of contention between the EU and the US, with the latter insisting that it regulates on the basis of scientific evidence, in contrast to Europe’s more precautionary approach. Are regulatory standards in food a red-line issue for Europe in the negotiations?

“Well, the first thing to say is that, in terms of outcomes, we have similarly high standards,” O’Sullivan says. “I don’t think American tourists coming to Europe feel very worried about the safety of the food they eat in our restaurants. Similarly, I don’t think that Europeans travelling in the United States don’t order steak or chicken because they’re worried if it’s fit to eat. It is true that we sometimes have different means of reaching these standards, and we don’t always agree. That’s what we have to talk about.”

Nonetheless, he suggests that certain consumer issues will be non-negotiable for Europe. “One area where I think we will not be able to agree, for example, is the use of hormones in beef,” he says. “I think that it’s very clear that after a very long debate in Europe and a lot of scientific evidence, we decided to ban hormones in beef. I don’t believe that, as part of any trade deal, we are going to change that.”

Beef concerns for Irish farmers

However, he says that opening up European markets to non-hormone US beef is on the table, something that is likely to raise concerns for Irish farmers.

“Back in 2009 I negotiated with the Americans a quota for non-hormone beef, and the American beef industry began producing hormone-free beef for sale in Europe, which is very profitable,” O’Sullivan says. “They make a lot of money out of it because we’re a valuable market. So I don’t think this needs to be a big problem between us: we can offer the American farmers opportunities to sell non-hormone beef, which they will make money out of, and we can get high-quality American beef without hormones.”

Similarly, he says that the EU position on genetically modified (GMO) crops is non-negotiable. “With GMOs, it’s clear that we have our legislation. The Americans don’t like it, but I don’t think we’re going to change this as part of a trade deal.”

The US also has its own red-line issues. While Europe is keen to include financial services as part of a streamlining of regulatory standards, the US is resistant, unwilling to reopen the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act .

Other areas of contention are the inclusion of an investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clause, which allows companies to sue governments for loss of earnings due to policy decisions. Is this a valid concern for citizens? “Personally I’m astonished at the agitation there is around this issue,” says O’ Sullivan, though he concedes that negotiators “clearly haven’t convinced people. ISDS is a feature of every bilateral investment treaty in the world, and that includes all the agreements that all our member states have, as well as the agreements the Americans have . . . It has never been a major problem.

“Having said that, if you look at what we have done in the recent EU-Canadian deal, the commission has negotiated a sort of renovated ISDS which makes much more explicit the limitations on ISDS, and includes new procedural safeguards, including the ability of environmental groups or other organisations to become party to the litigation.”

O’ Sullivan also believes that the real benefits of the EU-US trade agreement will be for small and medium-sized enterprises, as the negotiators try to abolish duplication in regulations in everything from car manufacturing to medical devices.

“People say this is all to the benefit of the large corporations,” he says. “Actually, large corporations can absorb the cost of these regulatory differences much more easily than a small company. The big winners from a trade simplification deal between the EU and the US are small and medium enterpruses, for whom these issues present huge challenges in terms of getting to the export market.”

As O’Sullivan prepares to move Stateside, he declines to give a date as to when the negotiations might conclude, though he says the US will also want to make progress on its trade negotiations with 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Some estimates suggest that the EU-US TTIP negotiations could be concluded by the end of next year.

Ethical questions

The prospect of an enhanced trade deal between the EU and US , who are already the world’s biggest trading partners, has also raised ethical questions about the commitment of the world’s top economic powers to multilateral trade and, specifically, the Doha round of trade talks.

O'Sullivan himself, when he was the EU director general of trade, was centrally involved in negotiating some of the EU's first bilateral deals, at a time when the World Trade Organisation (WTO) discussions were beginning to falter. "I was only in the job 10 days when I had to go with Peter Mandelson to the WTO ministerial in Hong Kong in 2006, where the EU was under a lot of pressure, particularly on agricultural export subsidies. We sensed that this was not going very well. Mandelson thought we needed to hedge our bets a bit, and produced a policy paper called Global Europe, which launched the idea that in parallel to the multilateral talks, we would open bilateral negotiations."

Bilateral negotiations between the EU and a number of Asian countries followed, and have continued since then. Just last week the EU signed a free-trade deal with Singapore. Nonetheless, O’Sullivan insists that both he and the EU remain committed to the WTO process. “I am profoundly convinced,” he says. “I remain personally deeply committed to the multilateral system and I think we will at some point come back to the multilateral table, and multilateralise, if you like, these bilateral deals that are currently being negotiated.”

But, for the moment, it appears, the world of realpolitik is taking precedence. “Today’s reality, unfortunately, is that a multilateral deal does not look like it’s going to happen any time soon, so I think in those circumstances we need to go for the trade deals we can do.”

CV Name: David O'Sullivan Age: 61 Education: BA, Trinity College Dublin, economics and sociology, 1975.

Position: Currently chief operating officer of the European External Action Service, the EU’s foreign-policy wing. From November 1st, he will be the EU’s ambassador to the US, the second Irish person to hold the position following John Bruton’s tenure from 2004 to 2009.

Family: Married to Agnes. Two children, Shane (23), a doctor, and Kate (20), a law student at Trinity College Dublin.

Something that might surprise you: A fan of yoga, he also cites pop music as his main hobby. His daughter, Kate , was a quarter-finalist in Belgium’s version of The Voice last year.

Something that won’t surprise you: He’s multilingual, speaking French fluently, with a strong knowledge of Spanish, German and Italian. He also speaks some Japanese from his time in Tokyo in the 1980’s, though he admits it’s “rusty” these days.