A Lifetime of European Public Service

Q&A with David O’Sullivan, European Union Ambassador to the United States

Name: David O’Sullivan | Age: 64 | Hometown: Dublin, Ireland Ambassador to the U.S. since: November 1, 2014

Tell us a little about your childhood and upbringing.

I had a happy normal middle class Dublin childhood. I was an only child — unusual at Ireland at that time. My father was in the military and my mother was a housewife. She had worked, but in those days in Ireland when you got married, you had to give it up, so she devoted herself to me and our home. She was passionately interested in music and had been a very good classical singer. She was probably disappointed when my musical interests turned to pop and contemporary music, but I had a good classical education.

You mentioned your father was in the military — what influence did that have on you growing up?

What particularly influenced me was my father’s international service. While he was in the Congo in 1961, I spent a year in California. It was a big change for me as an eight-year-old boy to go from Dublin to California in the 1960s. I enjoyed the experience enormously and it opened my eyes to a wider world that I might have not otherwise been exposed to. My father’s service overseas gave me a broader view and an understanding of global politics, the international community, and the United Nations, which he worked for. This all gave me an early taste for international affairs…which never left me.

Was there a moment or experience in your life where it became very clear that you wanted to pursue an international career?

I don’t think I had a “moment of inspiration.” Like many young people, I was not entirely sure of what I wanted to do with my life. But at that stage I had an instinct that I would like to do something international. In those days in Ireland, when you graduated, there were very few jobs available. Many people at my university encouraged me to go into the private sector, but companies were not recruiting people out of University at that time. So I ended up in the Irish Public Service, and then found my way into the Commission. It was never a very conscious career choice; it was more taking the opportunities as they presented themselves.

What made you decide to leave Ireland and the Irish Civil Service to go and work in Brussels at the European Commission?

For me, it was a natural evolution of having studied in Bruges, Belgium. Many of my friends were working for the Commission or in the general EU circles in Brussels and to be very honest, I didn’t think of the European Commission as a career at any stage. I saw it as an interesting experience — I certainly didn’t think I was signing up for life!

A photo displayed in Ambassador O’Sullivan’s office of his time as Head of Cabinet for Romano Prodi, Former President of the European Commission.

You’ve had some very diverse roles at the EU institutions— from Secretary General, to Director General for Trade, to the Chief Operating Officer of the EEAS, and now Ambassador — reflecting on these different roles, which did you enjoy most?

One of the great things about working for the European institutions is that you can have multiple careers either within or across the institutions. Before I took the jobs that you mentioned, I was very active in education training policy; I helped set up the Erasmus, COMET, and Tempus programs. I dealt with social policy and labor law, and spent the first four years of my early career in Tokyo dealing with trade issues.

Secretary General was the most demanding and interesting position I had. I got to see all sides of policy making and the workings of the European Union. I attended meetings of the European Council and had the privilege of being one of the officials in the room at dinners with European Heads of State. It was an absolutely fascinating and truly unique experience.

The job I found the most satisfying was Director General of Trade. I had a lot of business contacts and it was closest I came to the private sector. Trade is hugely important and also very practical, so I enjoyed that enormously. Setting up the External Action Service (EEAS) was a challenging but fascinating opportunity which renewed my links with diplomacy. I’ve been very fortunate in the jobs I’ve had and I’ve enjoyed them all.

What is the single most important trait or characteristic that has contributed to success in your career?

I have a reputation of being a straight talker — I say things the way I see them and try to present situations and issues to people in the clearest way possible. The other thing I have a talent for is organization. I’m good at managing situations, getting people to work together, and putting structures in place that can deliver results. Those are probably the two qualities that have been most useful to me over my career.

Ambassador O’Sullivan presented his credentials to President Obama at the White House on November 18, 2014. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.

Since you’ve come to DC as Ambassador, the EU has gone through some pretty big challenges, from economic and financial crises, to the refugee crises, and most recently, the UK referendum. What keeps you going through these challenges?

I am a passionate believer in European integration. I truly believe that Europe’s future is through some form of integration. What keeps me going is a belief that this is absolutely essential for the future of our continent, but also for Europe’s ability to be a force for good in the world. The challenges we face are global challenges, not just European challenges.

What would you hope to see the EU accomplish in the next few years?

Of course, we’re going to have to work our way through Brexit It’s going to be fiendishly complicated and difficult. I hope we can find an intelligent way of managing the situation, but it is going to absorb a lot of energy. And at the same time, we have to address in Europe the challenges that I think all western democracies are facing — a certain disillusionment with the way our socio-economic system presently functions. Many people feel that it’s not delivering for them and not offering the same prospects for the future as it has in the past. Therefore, they are tempted to look for — in my view — simplistic and mistaken answers to that problem.

We will also have to see what the next phase of European development will look like, recognizing that on one hand there may not be such a huge appetite in Europe for a great leap forward in integration…but on the other hand, we face a number of challenges which are best addressed collectively. Whether that’s in security, defense, terrorism, migration, asylum, or the challenge of simply restoring a higher level of economic growth and a more socially just economic-social system to address the problem of growing inequality in our society.

Something even more important than “globalization” that is driving a lot of the development in our society is technology. Technology is dramatically changing the way people live and work. Unfortunately, many of our people are not equipped to live through that change in a successful way. We are at risk of having a large number of people who feel excluded from the possibilities of economic progress — and that is something we have to address very seriously.

I’m a fan of technology, don’t get me wrong, but we need to have an eye to the social consequences in terms of equality, distribution of income, and economic opportunity. I think that will be a very real challenge for the United States and for Europe in the coming years.

Let’s talk about life in Washington, D.C. Aside from your year in California, have you spent much time in the States?

When I was a student, I spent two summers in Chicago working as a YMCA camp counselor. Though I’ve spent a good deal of time in the United States, I’ve never lived in Washington. It’s been a joy to discover…a lovely city, a little bit sleepy compared to a place like New York, but personally I prefer that. Big enough to have all the amenities of a large city, but no so big that it gets overwhelming.

Do you have any favorite local spots or restaurants?

I love the National Mall and the many monuments. The Tidal Basin is such a well thought-out feature of the city — it’s such a pleasure to walk there. I love the Indian restaurant Rasika and Restaurant Nora, which is also a short walk from the Residence on Belmont Road.

Ambassador O’Sullivan with his wife, architect and interior designer Agnes O’Hare, at the Ambassador’s residence in NW Washington, D.C.

What are some of your passions or hobbies?

I love cinema and music. Leonard Cohen is one of my great heroes and I saw him many times in concert. The first time was in Dublin in 1972, for his famous Bird on the Wire concert. I’ve been to two great concerts here in DC — Cat Stevens at the Kennedy Center and Jackson Browne at Wolf Trap last summer. Music is a very important part of my life.

I heard that you used to play the guitar — have you picked it up again?

For a long time that was a very big part of my life and then with work, family, and other commitments, one thing led to another and I put the guitar to the side. I promised myself when I came to Washington that I would take it up again. I even went out and bought a very nice guitar. I hope still to get back to it, but I haven’t succeeded in finding the time.

Did you know the Ambassador to Denmark plays the guitar?

Yes! I suspect he’s actually quite good. There’s also a former Hungarian Ambassador to NATO who actually has a rock band. He has invited me to go hear them play, which I would love to when I have the time.

How about travel — which places are on the top of your bucket list?

I’ve seen quite a lot of America — it’s a vast country. I’m a great fan of western movies and The Searchers — a John Wayne movie — is one of my favorites. It’s set against the backdrop of Monument Valley, so it was just amazing seeing the scenery and recognizing it from the movies. I’m hoping to get to Yellowstone, because I want to go and see Custer’s Last Stand at Little Big Horn.

The National Parks are just amazing. When I was working at the YMCA summer camp in Chicago, we went canoeing and hiking and I used to interact a lot with the park rangers. I have enormous respect for the Park Service; they do a fantastic job, and the rangers are so professional. It’s a genius thing to have preserved large chunks of the wilderness of this country…and do it in such a way that it’s still accessible. You can drive through it if you want to, but on the other hand if you want to go hiking or have a wilderness experience, you can do that. It is a fantastic resource.

I’d like to go up to Canada and Vancouver as well. I’ve been told that the drive from Seattle to Vancouver is very nice. I’ve done Highway One (U.S. Route 1) many times from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with all of those iconic scenes that you see on the movies, but I’d also like to do that Northern Coast.

The one part of the world that I know very little about is Africa. I had the privilege of going once to South Africa and Botswana, but it’s a vast continent and I’d like to see the rest of Africa.

What’s something that most people don’t know about you?

I like to cook. I’ll work off recipes or just make things up…from pastas to traditional roasts and potatoes to curries. I’m not a Cordon Bleu chef but I enjoy preparing food and find cooking very relaxing. I have less opportunity here because of all the official commitments, but that’s still something I enjoy when I have the time.

Ambassador O’Sullivan was awarded an Honorary Degree from Trinity College, Dublin in 2014. Photo courtesty of Maxwells Dublin.

Having spent so much time away from Ireland, where do you consider home to be?

Whenever I go back to Ireland, it always has that feeling of “I’m coming home,” a feeling of familiarity. I feel very much at home in Brussels as well and I lived there perhaps even longer than I lived in Ireland.

One of the problems of the expatriate life, ultimately, is that you are at home everywhere and nowhere.

You lose the continuity and the sense of place that people who have lived for a very long time in one place have…along with the sense of community that comes with it.

I have one particularly close friend I stay in touch with whom I’ve known since we were 6 or 7. I see how integrated he is with a rich community of friends that he’s known over a long period…and I don’t have that. I have friends, but I dip in and out. Now, this is the life I’ve chosen, and I don’t necessarily regret it in the sense that I would wanted to work in Dublin all of my life. I knew I wanted to leave, I knew I wanted to see the outside world, but it does come at a certain cost of roots and connection.

What would you say you’re most proud of?

On a macro level, I’m most proud of what I’m able to contribute to the building of the European Union, which I really think is a most noble enterprise. Finding a better way of living together in Europe than what we failed at in the 20th century with two civil wars that turned into world wars and the Holocaust, is a hugely important project for me. I’ve only been a small part of it, but I’m very proud to have played a part in building what we have achieved: growing from 6 countries to 28 countries, being a haven for countries emerging from totalitarianism, reunifying the continent with the great enlargement of 2004, bringing in the former Soviet Bloc countries, establishing a single currency shared by 19 countries, enjoying freedom of movement and travel…this is a remarkable transformation.

When I look at how young people treat Europe as a single continent and move effortlessly from one place to another, it’s is a huge achievement.

My biggest disappointment is that we have not managed to convince more people in Europe of what a remarkable achievement this is. Many people see the benefits, but they don’t put it in the context of “Well, this has come from the European Union.” They like the fact that they can travel freely, that airfares are much cheaper because we have competition in air transport, or that infrastructure has improved because of investment from the EU, but they don’t always make the link to the way the European Union functions in Brussels, and that is something that people feel very free to criticize. My biggest pride is in what we’ve built, my biggest disappointment is in that we have not succeeded in sufficiently bringing people with us in our enthusiasm for that work. We absolutely need the democratic buy-in of our people to take this project to the next stage, and it really needs a big investment of effort.

If there is one thing you could share with Americans about the EU, what would that be?

People can preserve their national identity, culture, language, and way of living — in a unified, European space where we have freedom of movement, a Single Market, and a high degree of integration. Sometimes this is a struggle for Americans to understand. They often see things as a binary choice: you’re either in favor of nation-states, or you’re trying to create something like America. Whereas in fact, we’re not.

We’re creating something which is entirely unique, in which we preserve the identity, culture, language, and way of life of our individual Member States in the context of an over-arching European framework that provides better outcomes than individual states can achieve on their own.

Whether that’s the power of a market of 500 million people as opposed to 28 segmented markets, or our ability to leverage in trade negotiations, or better protecting our security. This is what I’m always trying to explain to Americans because I think some people here are genuinely saying “I’m very worried with what you’re doing at the EU, you’re going to get rid of your national identity,” and we’re not. We never will.


This story is part of the @EUintheUS “Ambassador Spotlight Series,” featuring in-depth, personal interviews with ambassadors from the European Union’s 28 member states. Follow our publication and stay tuned for the next story.