Diplomatic mission spat increases UK-EU tensions

The British government is in a fresh stand-off with Brussels over delays in granting full diplomatic status to the EU’s representation in London.

Senior EU officials said moves to grant the bloc’s delegation the status of a full diplomatic mission under the Vienna Convention — which were presumed to be a formality once the UK had agreed a withdrawal agreement last October — appear to have got bogged down.

The dispute between London and Brussels comes as EU-UK negotiations on the two sides’ future relationship grow increasingly strained, with a sharp exchange of letters this week in which EU negotiator Michel Barnier warned that talks were at risk of “stalemate”.

The negotiations between the Foreign Office (FCO) and the EU’s foreign policy arm, the European External Action Service (EEAS), are separate to the future relationship talks but risk further straining relations between the two sides. 

Peter Stano, an EU spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, said the EU’s “status in external relations and its subsequent diplomatic status is amply recognised by countries and international organisations around the world.”

“We expect the United Kingdom to treat the EU delegation accordingly and without delay,” he said. 

EU officials were told at a briefing on May 8 that the bloc had hoped to conclude talks on the status of the EU’s mission in London last year, but that the British government had delayed an agreement, citing its lack of a parliamentary majority to push through relevant legislation.

However, talks were still stalled after Boris Johnson won his 80-seat majority last December and had not progressed when the coronavirus crisis struck in February, further delaying discussions. 

The matter needs to be settled at the latest by the end of Britain’s post-Brexit transition period — a standstill arrangement that preserves much of the UK and EU’s pre-existing relationship, and which expires at the end of this year. 

There is added political sensitivity for London because Europe House, the EU delegation’s current headquarters, is located at 32 Smith Square — the headquarters of the Conservative party until 2003.

Leading Eurosceptic MPs, including Conservative leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, have suggested that Brussels might hand back the politically iconic building, which is inextricably linked in the minds of the Tory party faithful with Margaret Thatcher’s three election victories. 

EEAS officials were told in the May 8 meeting that talks had now resumed and that there was now “no reason why this should be a problem”. 

But a second EU diplomat characterised the talks as “stuck”, adding that the UK side was apparently delaying the granting of full diplomatic status pending an agreement on the wider future relationship.

All of the EU’s 143 diplomatic missions around the world currently have full diplomatic status, although this was used a political pawn by the Trump administration in January 2019 when the EU ambassador was dropped down the diplomatic order of precedence amid heightened trade tensions between Washington and Brussels.

The EU argues that full diplomatic status should be automatic, but a UK government spokesman said only that discussions were continuing to decide the “appropriate arrangements” for the delegation.

“Now we have left the EU, discussions continue with the EU on the appropriate arrangements for the EU delegation in the UK when the transition period ends on 31 December 2020,” the spokesperson said.

However, Mr Stano added that the British government was “well aware” that EU missions abroad were treated as equivalent to those of nation states and the UK had supported this position when it was a member of the bloc.

“Nothing has changed since the UK’s exit from the European Union to justify any change in stance on the UK’s part,” he said. “The status of the EU delegation in London is not part of the negotiations on a future agreement with the UK.”

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