By Michele Bendall | Editor of Delegation of the European Union to the United States
Name: Stavros Lambrinidis | Age: 57 |Hometown: Athens, Greece
Ambassador to the U.S. since: April 8, 2019
Welcome back to Washington, Ambassador! Many of our readers may not know that you actually attended college here — first at Amherst College, then at Yale Law School — then you worked for a number of years as an international trade lawyer here in Washington. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to the US.
I came to the US to study economics. The US was renowned, even back in the late 1970’s in Greece, for its economic studies. I went to Amherst in particular because I was told by my high school advisor that it was the one place I should not apply because I would never get in, so it stuck in my mind as something that I simply had to try! So I did, and I was lucky enough to get in. And it was the most remarkable educational experience that I had.
When I was about done with college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so, naturally, I applied to law school. Then I applied for a job in Washington at a big law firm and I got it. As an international person I wanted to do international stuff so I did international trade law. International trade negotiations were fascinating experiences, even back then.
And then my country called me back to serve in the army. Every Greek male has to do it and that was back in ’93. I went back and my life changed. I stayed in Greece and got involved in Greek politics again. I had been politically active as a young kid during the mid-70s after the dictatorship had fallen. When I got back in ’93, the country had progressed quite a bit but there was still a lot of political discussion focusing on how to integrate more into Europe, what to do with European funds that were coming into the country, how to deal with our unique neighborhood, and how to integrate all that into the European Union’s own foreign and cohesion policies. There were all these very interesting topics that made me stay. I always thought that after getting that out of my system I would come back and become a rich lawyer, but that never happened. I stayed in Greece, and I stayed in Europe.
You served as a Member of the European Parliament from 2004–2011. What was the most important thing you learned about the European Union during your time in Brussels?
That the EU is the biggest democracy in the world. Did you know that the European Parliament is the only transnational parliament in the world with real powers and influence that is directly elected by the people? As someone who had the honor of serving there, I got to experience first-hand how extraordinary this institution is.
Only a few decades ago we were fighting each other on the European battlefields, and now our citizens across Europe are electing representatives to work together to find solutions to our common challenges. How to go from war and destitution to ultimate peace, prosperity and freedom is a lesson that, today, inspires both us and countless millions of people around the world. Let us not forget our responsibility as both an example and a beacon of hope.
Another important lesson I learned was that it was impossible to achieve anything in the European Parliament unless you managed to build alliances with different political groups and individual members. No party, by definition, had the majority, so you had to be extremely committed to your ideals and at the same time be able to understand that if you’re going to be implementing things it cannot be a win-lose. You cannot expect to win it all and the other person to lose it all. There was no contradiction between being firm in your convictions and striving to reach meaningful compromise.
You were the Foreign Affairs Minister of Greece during a very difficult economic period for the country. Was there an important lesson or experience you had that you would like to share?
In 2011, Greece was still in the center of the financial crisis. People don’t remember that very well, but every day there was a story somewhere about Greece being about to collapse and to leave the Euro and the European Union, or the Euro itself and Europe itself seeing their last days. And of course, all these things had the tendency of feeding on themselves and almost creating a self-fulfilling prophecy if you didn’t stop it. I spent an enormous amount of time building alliances within the European Union itself and with our Member States to support Greece and beginning the discussion on things that eventually became EU policies, such as setting up funds to support countries in crises. And, more broadly, dispelling the myth that Europe would collapse ended up being a huge part of my emphasis with non-EU countries, including in this country. It was a big public relations effort to ensure that not just Greece, but Europe, should be portrayed as they really are and have always been — resilient, strong, and able to deal with even apparent existential crises while coming out as strong as ever in the end.
You were most recently the EU’s Special Representative for Human Rights. How did that posting prepare you for your work here as ambassador?
Under the instructions of the EU’s foreign policy chief, I dealt with situations that were among the most difficult and contentious in the foreign policy field, especially with some of the world’s worst human rights violators, and I also simultaneously dealt with building alliances with countries that protect and defend human rights. Some countries in the world are committed against human rights for political or ideological reasons, and with those countries I had to interact knowing that it would be difficult to change the positions of their leaders. I had to build trust and confidence in order to be able to visit the countries and meet at the highest political level and deliver some of the strongest political messages that they would receive, but without having them shut the door in Europe’s face. In some countries we were the only ones present and virtually no one else could even open the door to get there.
Did we achieve change? In some cases, yes. To give but one example, hundreds of illegally imprisoned human rights defenders around the world are today free because of our unwavering efforts. Did we also fail? Sure. It’s not easy. Keep in mind that we often had to deal with governments or mentalities that were very anti-European, conveniently accusing us as “the West” trying to impose “our values” on “the Rest.” To counter this narrative, I had to be firm but also ensure that they would move more to the European point of view. I tried to empower and protect people on the ground to take domestic “ownership” of human rights and also to build coalitions with countries sitting on the fence; countries transitioning to democracy, with a developing sincere commitment to human rights, but that could still go either way, especially when the sirens of human rights violators with a lot of money in their pockets and investments would come around and try to convince them to abandon the human rights ship.
How did this prepare me for this country? Obviously, there is quite a bit of contentious rhetoric and disagreement at times, but also a tremendous amount of joint commitment to democratic values and their positive impact on our countries and the world, including for fortifying our joint security. In many countries, I worked hand-in-hand with my U.S. interlocutors and we both saw how we could reach important win-win outcomes when we work closely together.
Where does the transatlantic relationship stand today?
As I just said — when the EU and the US work together we both win. It is in the United States’ interest to have a strong, prosperous Europe as its closest partner — just as it is in the EU’s interest to have a strong, successful United States. Your strength is our strength.
And that applies to the economic well-being on both sides of the Atlantic but also more broadly as like-minded partners in the world with shared values, grounded in a common determination for freedom, peace, and prosperity.
The EU-US relationship has faced a number of challenges recently, from China to the imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs, how do you hope to overcome these challenges?
The European Union is not the problem when it comes to dumping steel. The EU and US both suffer from Chinese practices and overcapacity and we need to work together to take back control and ensure that no one abuses our common rules. Everyone has to play by the book, including China. China is a multilateral player and best dealt with in multilateral forums, in addition to bilaterally. The EU and the US — along with Japan as we have seen in our trilateral meetings — should be part of the solution together.
We also have to reform the multilateral trading system. The WTO is in need of reform, so let’s work together to reform it. We want to have clear rules to have a fair game. But reforming does not mean incapacitating. We must not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
What are your top priorities?
First, trade. Considering the size, scale, and importance of the EU-US relationship, any improvements to trade and investment will have big impacts for companies and our citizens on both sides of the Atlantic. The joint statement Presidents Juncker and Trump put out last July really goes to the heart of it: “The United States and the European Union have a $1 trillion bilateral trade relationship — the largest economic relationship in the world. We want to further strengthen this trade relationship to the benefit of all American and European citizens.” And that is really what we have been plugging away at since that meeting.
Second, the environment. We’re stepping up our climate diplomacy and collaboration with other partners. It’s reassuring to see a strengthened resolve from all those who both recognize climate change as a clear and present danger and recognize the tremendous job-creating opportunities of a modern green economy, including in the US.
We are also working on becoming a bigger security and defense actor. We agree that Europeans need to spend more on defense, and we are already doing so massively. As EU member states, we are also now coordinating to research more, invest more, develop more efficient capabilities, and deploy more together. This directly benefits NATO and our collective — EU and US — security. At the same time, lest we forget, preventing conflicts across the globe and supporting stability and security after bloody conflicts have ended is the best way to avoid the necessity of further costly military interventions. We can save a lot of bullets thanks to our unparalleled contributions to development and humanitarian assistance (by far the highest of any other country in the world), climate action, election observation, and peacekeeping worldwide.
This is your very first ambassadorship. So far, what do you enjoy most about being an ambassador?
I’ve enjoyed, more than anything else, my initial meetings with the ambassadors of all EU Member States. I am deeply cognizant of the fact that I represent the European Union, which means our member countries also. In such a bilateral city, as everyone calls it, I have been impressed and encouraged by everyone’s desire to increase European Union unity and joint presence. And that everyone feels that even their bilateral interests are better served through a strong EU. I take this as a point of strength for me. It gives me energy and hope to do my work.
Also, I don’t think I’ve ever worked with such a remarkably diverse and high caliber staff. I have worked in very many diverse environments in my life, to be sure, but the unique nature of the EU Delegation in Washington has a lot of advantages, including being inspired by the ideas of really smart people from diverse backgrounds, on every different topic that we address. Perhaps the homogeneity of one particular diplomatic service may not always be able to give you the same diversity of thought and approach. I’ve had a fantastic experience bouncing around ideas about things that we can do and achieve together.
Are there any places to visit in the US that are at the top of your bucket list?
I would absolutely like to go to the states that everybody says have no or very little understanding of the European Union. I’d love to be able engage with people and show them what the European Union contributes to the prosperity and security of their daily lives. But also how similar our values are — whether it’s jobs to support their livelihoods, or love of freedom, community and family — all these things that are ingrained in the European soul. I hope I will be able to take some time not only to visit numerous U.S. States and to meet with political and business interlocutors but also to really enjoy this great country and learn from its people — many of whom are proud Americans of equally proud European backgrounds from all our Member States!
What’s something that most people don’t know about you? Any special talents, passions, hobbies?
I love to bicycle and I used to sing Greek songs when I was younger, with my high school band. I listen to some of these tapes now and I cringe. So, more of a hobby than a talent I suppose.
If there is one thing you could share with Americans about the EU, what would that be?
We are a powerful economy providing jobs to our people and to 8 million Americans every year. We are a huge democracy — arguing, fighting, compromising, building, progressing. We are champions of human rights.
We are a beacon of hope for millions of people who are in poverty and in war and look to the European Union as the example they can strive for. We are resilient, open to the world, and are the best ally that the US could ever have.
If you’re in a bind and you need to call someone, wouldn’t you call that one person you know would pick up the phone, the one person you know cares, who would drop everything and come to your aid? Well this is what the European Union is and has been historically to the US, and this is what the US has been for Europe as well.
Compliments of the EU Delegation to the USA.