As the British government was negotiating the terms for Brexit—Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union—David O’Sullivan, EU ambassador to the United States, joined Gráinne de Búrca, Florence Ellinwood Allen Professor of Law, and University Professor J.H.H. Weiler for a “fireside chat” [RC1] about the state of the European project. At the event, which was sponsored by the Jean Monnet Center for International and Regional Economic Law & Justice, O’Sullivan discussed the challenges facing the EU, including those posed by Brexit and what has come to be known as Euroscepticism, or criticism of the EU model.

David O'SullivanDe Búrca began by asking O’Sullivan about Brexit, which, she noted, “has been looming large ever since June 2016.” He said that he believed it would indeed happen, but added that there was still uncertainty about how the exit would occur. O’Sullivan pointed specifically to the issues surrounding the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. If the UK were to leave the EU Customs Union, it would in turn create a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.

Such a border could hinder relations between Britain and Ireland, as joint membership of the EU was an important part of the peace process in Northern Ireland, he said, noting, “It facilitated dialogue between the Irish and the British government.”

General distrust of the EU, which played a role in fueling the Brexit vote, is part of a broader crisis in Western democracy, he acknowledged. “The EU is a lightning rod for much of the discontent that people feel…. People feel that the system isn’t delivering for them, and in Europe, it’s easy to blame the EU,” O’Sullivan said. This sentiment is reinforced by national politicians within EU member countries who take responsibility for national economic successes and blame the EU for economic failures. O’Sullivan referred to this pattern as “the nationalization of success and the Europeanization of failure.”

In response to criticisms that the EU is creating a monolithic European culture, Sullivan cited the EU’s motto “United in diversity.” Personally, O’Sullivan said, he feels pride both in his Irish identity and in his status as a member of the EU. “Ireland has never had a stronger international identity as Ireland than since it has joined the European Union,” O’Sullivan noted, adding that “the diversity of our member states is at the core of our mission.”

Posted December 15, 2017