The EU may shake, but it will not topple, according to the top EU diplomat in the US. The risks of Greece leaving the Euro and the British leaving the EU entirely are not insignificant, but have been overblown, and both are unlikely to happen, according to David O'Sullivan, the EU Ambassador to the US. "Never underestimate the glue that holds the EU together," O'Sullivan told LAWAC members over dinner Tuesday. But while generally sanguine on the future of the EU member countries and their improving economies, O'Sullivan conceded that Europe is now living in a much more threatening neighborhood, with the invasion of Ukraine, the turmoil in the Middle East and the flood of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from Africa. "Europe needs to reflect on whether it has adequately prepared for these challenges," he said, acknowledging that the US has other priorities and would like Europeans to pay more for their own security.
On Greece, he said the crux of the issue was bridging the gap between the new leftist Syriza government that promised to do things differently by relieving austerity, and the requirement of the international community for some concrete financial plan that inspires sufficient confidence to open up more loans to Athens. "The laws of economics have not changed - we have to show some sympathy to Greece, but they also need some tough love." He rejected some economists' predictions that a "Grexit" was 80% likely, and said he was confident a deal between Athens and its European partners would be concluded.
On the British elections, which were won by Conservative leader David Cameron who has promised to hold a referendum on whether the UK should stay in the EU by 2017, O'Sullivan said that this was not something to be afraid of. "The EU is built on democracy - it is a remarkable experiment in the pooling of sovereignty, but the member states remain democracies." For that reason he said it was a good thing that the UK will discuss its membership of the EU. "We should have this debate, and not run away from the discussion of why Europe is a good thing." He said that if Cameron can reach some accommodation with the EU over the issues Britain feels strongly about - particularly immigration - then British political parties across the spectrum will decide to stay in the EU.
Referring to Ireland's economic crash when GDP shrank by 7.1% in 2009, and the government sought a $90 billion bail-out from the EU and the International Monetary Fund, O'Sullivan said with some understatement that "Ireland has been through some difficult times." The austerity program caused "much bitterness and resentment" about what people had to go through, but now the economy has turned round and is forecast to grow by 4.8% this year, the highest rate in the EU, and Ireland's future looks bright again. Overall, O'Sullivan said, the EU has played a central role in the "enormous changes in Ireland since the 1970's" - both economically, socially and culturally. He pointed to the referendum in favor of gay marriage which passed with 62% of the vote after a very consensual debate in what is still a conservative, Catholic-dominated society. "Had that debate been held even 10 years ago it would have been much more divisive."
The invasion of Crimea by Russia was "a cathartic moment" for Europe. "Putin has basically torn up the rule book," O'Sullivan said. All the post-Berlin Wall assumptions of a peaceful co-existence with Europe's Russian neighbor have now been put back into question. "My generation thought money would be spent on education, not on tanks and war. It's a difficult discussion." But on the positive side O'Sullivan said that the EU and the US have shown remarkable unity in confronting Russian aggression, which he said "came as something of a shock to Putin, who probably thought he could drive the Europeans and the US apart." And while acknowledging that many European countries rely on Russia for some of their energy needs, O'Sullivan said that did not mean Putin could simply turn off the pipelines. "Russia may be a monopoly supplier, but we are a monopoly consumer - Mr Putin doesn't have anyone else to sell his oil and gas to."
On the estimated one million migrants who are gathering along the southern shores of the Mediterranean and seeking a way to cross over from Africa to Europe, O'Sullivan said this was a long term problem with no easy fix. "When you have an island of wealth surrounded by failed states they will always be tempted to cross the frontier." Some of the migrants are genuine refugees facing persecution at home, others are simply seeking a better economic future. "I am profoundly in favor of immigration - I think we need immigration," he said, referring to the ageing demographics of many European countries. "But we have to work within a democratic framework - you can't do this faster than the population allows."