In a Slight to E.U., U.K. Says Not All Ambassadors Are Equal
BRUSSELS — For all the complications and wounded feelings Brexit has introduced in the relationship between the European Union and its erstwhile member, Britain, this week saw the addition of a diplomatic spat reminiscent of a similar argument initiated by former President Donald J. Trump.
So far, at least, Britain is refusing to grant the European Union ambassador the same diplomatic status as other ambassadors.
The British argument is that the European Union is an international federation, not a nation state, and should receive the same treatment as other international organizations, further down the diplomatic ranking. There is also the suspicion that the British government is trying to embarrass Brussels and contrast its own status as a nation state with the confederation it chose to leave.
The dispute was first reported by the BBC, and the issue is still being negotiated, representatives for both sides said on Thursday.
“Engagement continues with the E.U. on the long-term arrangements for the E.U. delegation to the U.K.,’’ the British Foreign Office said in a statement.
Peter Stano, spokesman for the European External Action Service, said that the European Union is “accorded privileges and immunities equivalent to those of diplomatic missions under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations” and has such status in 143 other countries and multilateral organizations in the world, “and the U.K. is well aware of this fact.”
Both sides noted that levels of representation were not covered in the Brexit negotiations.
Britain’s exit from the bloc is still raw, with considerable teething problems and customs issues delaying two-way trade, and its position would seem to emphasize what Brexiters call its “liberation” from the European Union and the obligations of shared sovereignty.
One of the results of a downgrade, if it is confirmed, would be to eliminate diplomatic immunity for representatives of the European Union. And the E.U. ambassador would not be allowed to present credentials to the queen.
Ian Bond, the director of foreign policy for the Center for European Reform in London, said that Britain’s “attempt to downgrade the status of the E.U. delegation to the U.K. looks petty and guaranteed to cause ill-will, when the U.K. needs friends in Brussels.’’
It was “worth noting Trump tried the same trick, but had to back down,’’ he said, referring to a similar effort to downgrade the status of the E.U. ambassador to Washington two years ago.
“Is that a good precedent?” said Mr. Bond.
The demotion of the ambassador, David O’Sullivan, became evident at the December 2018 funeral of President George H.W. Bush, when Mr. O’Sullivan’s name was not called in the expected order. The names of diplomats who had gathered in Washington to pay their respects to the former president were read aloud, as is custom, from the longest-serving ambassador to the newest, but Mr. O’Sullivan was called last.
Mr. Trump was well-known for his dislike of the European Union, which he compared to a foe and a rival, not an ally. But after the news emerged, the former American ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, was instrumental in getting the Trump administration to restore the E.U.’s diplomatic status and ranking three months later.
Of course, while still a member of the European Union, Britain was outspoken in defending the diplomatic status of the bloc to the Trump administration.
The E.U. ambassador to London, João Vale de Almeida, is one of the bloc’s most experienced. He previously served as ambassador of the European Union to the United Nations from 2015 to 2019 and as ambassador to the United States from 2010 to 2014.