Interview with David O'Sullivan

On 25 April, the Alumni Association of the College of Europe awarded Mr David O’Sullivan (Adam Jerzy Czartoryski Promotion, 1975-1976) Alumnus of the year 2013. Currently Chief Operating Officer of the European External Action Service, Mr O’Sullivan will come back to the College of Europe this summer on the occasion of a panel discussion on: ‘The European External Action Service: A Foreign Ministry of the European Union?’*. As a foretaste, we already had the chance to ask him a few questions.

The EEAS is not, and never will be a traditional Foreign Ministry. It is not meant to supplant national ministries. Rather we seek to complement their actions and make European foreign policy stronger as a result – as the HR/VP likes to say, it's ‘a grab for efficiency not for power’.

To your mind, what has improved since the European External Action Service (EEAS) has been

The European External Action Service was established just over two and a half years ago. In this short period of time the service – under the leadership of High Representative/Vice President Catherine Ashton – visibly improved the coordination of the EU's external action.

The most immediate priority of the EEAS has been the promotion of a comprehensive approach to foreign policy. Compared to the previous system of six-monthly presidencies, the Treaty of Lisbon has introduced more continuity in the EU's external representation, in Brussels and around the world where the EEAS is present with over 140 EU Delegations. The EEAS now coordinates the EU's bilateral and multilateral relations with the crisis management structures that were previously part of the Council Secretariat. That also includes responsibility for 16 actively deployed civilian missions and military operations and over 6 000 personnel in the field.

Over the past two and a half years the HR/VP and her service have been particularly focused on a comprehensive response to the Arab Uprisings. Today we are only witnessing the beginning of these historic transformations. Another focus are the E3+3 negotiations with Iran led by the High Representative. The EU also remains firmly engaged in the Middle East Peace Process. Last year the EU deepened its commitment to Human Rights, by appointing an EU Special Representative and adopting a new strategy to streamline human rights in all policy areas.

We continue to work towards a more structured approach to relations with the EU's major strategic partners, building on our bilateral relations and finding new ways to be more effective in multilateral settings. The EU is strongly committed to working together with regional and international partners to find a sustainable solution to the crisis in Syria. We are also engaged in tackling fragile security situations, from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa.

A good example of the EU's commitment to promote peaceful solutions to conflicts has been our role in supporting the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue: the recent agreement facilitated by the HR/VP defied all sceptics. After intense negotiations between the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo an agreement was reached – demonstrating that the EU can contribute to solving complex and seemingly intractable enmities.

The creation of the EEAS is obviously still work in progress, but what has been achieved so far confirms that we are on the right path.

Prior to joining the EEAS, you have held numerous prominent positions in the ‘European Civil Service’. In terms of inter-institutional relations amongst the EEAS and other EU Institutions, where would you see room for improvement (if any)?

Combining the roles of the High Representative, President of the Foreign Affairs Council, and Vice President of the Commission has offered a unique opportunity to develop new synergies amongst the institutions, and led to more coherence and coordination. The changes of the Lisbon Treaty bring more continuity in relations with our partners as well as closer interaction amongst Member States. This does not mean that on some issues Member States will not continue to have different positions; but on all issues there is a stronger, intense exchange of views, and the shared will of achieving agreement on common European action whenever possible.

The Task-forces that the HR/VP has championed in countries in transition offers a good example of this 'joined-up' approach; by bringing together national authorities with representatives of European institutions, business representatives and civil society, the taskforces organised in Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan have opened new opportunities for cooperation. We are glad to be able to support these countries offering partnership and dialogue.

The mandate of the EEAS is to ensure the consistency of the Union’s external action. How is this concretely achieved?

The EEAS works closely, on a daily basis, with the Commission and the Council; for example, summits or high-level visits by the President of the European Council or the President of the Commission are prepared jointly, and coordinated by the EEAS under the political guidance of the HR/VP.

Our cooperation with the Commission encompasses a wide range of issues: we present joint initiatives and communications and ensure delivery of all EU's policies, including Commission policies, via our network of EU Delegations abroad. We have a particularly close relationship with Commissioner Füle and Commissioner Piebalgs regarding the management and programming of financial instruments.

Maybe a last question related to the EEAS as an institution. Will the EEAS continue taking over tasks of the EU Rotating Presidency, such as for instance chairing Council working parties?

With the Treaty of Lisbon, the HR/VP and the EEAS have assumed fully the responsibilities previously exercised by the rotating Presidency in the area of external relations. This includes chairing and setting the agenda of Foreign Affairs Council meetings, of the Political and Security Committee and of all relevant supporting Council working groups within the Council. EU Delegations around the world have also taken on the additional responsibilities of local coordination with diplomatic missions of Member States as well as taking on the external representation of EU foreign policy with third countries and multilateral organisations.

In terms of the EU’s external action: what are currently the most pressing priorities?

I already mentioned some priorities. Together with all its partners, the EU is grappling with the aftermath of the Arab spring and the transition process in many of our neighbours on the other side of the Mediterranean. We are also working intensively with our partners to the East. The Vilnius Summit later this year will mark another milestone in the creation of a stronger eastern partnership.

Beyond our neighbourhood, we continue to foster closer relations with our strategic partners, through meetings at the highest level and through closer cooperation on meeting some of the global challenges where the Union is particularly active, such as poverty reduction, climate change or the fight against terrorism.

In about a month from now, you will be discussing at the College of Europe in Bruges to what extent (if any!) the EEAS could be seen as the EU’s Foreign Ministry. Could you please already share your views with the Readers of our e-Newsletter?

The EEAS is not, and never will be a traditional Foreign Ministry. It is not meant to supplant national ministries. Rather we seek to complement their actions and make European foreign policy stronger as a result – as the HR/VP likes to say, it's 'a grab for efficiency not for power'.

In fact, in some respects the EEAS is more than a Foreign Ministry as our organisation also includes responsibilities which in most national administrations belong to other Ministries – such as Defence Ministries or Development.

So how would you describe the relation of the EEAS with the diplomatic services of the EU Member States?

Setting up the EEAS has been crucial for strengthening relations with the diplomatic services of the Members States, both here in Brussels and through our Delegations around the world. To a large extent this is a natural consequence of the transfer of responsibility from the rotating Presidency to the HR/VP. The growing presence of national diplomats in the service is also making a positive contribution to the relations with Member States, not least bringing in their expertise and established network of contacts.

More and more Ministries of Foreign Affairs seek to strengthening cooperation and pool resources. This includes sharing political reporting, mutual support in organising high-level visits and exploring possibilities for co-location of EU Delegations and national embassies ('Europe Houses').

Looking at the future… Which challenges does the EEAS still need to face?

Our priority for the future is to consolidate the progress we have made in promoting a more coherent and effective external policy for the Union. We want to see the comprehensive approach in action across the board of policy areas. We also need to strengthen our collective capacity to define and articulate common responses to policy challenges drawing on all available instruments at EU and national levels.

Our neighbourhood and the EU's strategic partnerships will remain priorities and we will also continue to develop the EU's capacity for comprehensive and effective responses to crisis and security challenges.

We thank you for your time, and look very much forward to welcoming you, again!, in Bruges.

* Ms Rosa Balfour, Senior Policy Analyst and Head of the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre, Mr Jan Wouters, Visiting Professor at the College of Europe and Director of the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies, will be joining Mr David O’Sullivan during this panel discussion. Taking place on Wednesday 10 July 2013 (17h15-18h45) at the Verversdijk extension of the College of Europe campus in Bruges, this event is organised in the framework of the 20th edition of the ‘Intensive Seminar on the European Union’.

By Juliette Coin and Katinka Koke, members of the Intensive Seminar organising team, College of Europe Development Office.

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