The EU has hit back at a UK downgrade of its diplomatic status — a snub that former US president Donald Trump’s administration also inflicted on the bloc but later reversed.
Brussels said there was nothing to justify the British government’s decision to refuse post-Brexit to give the EU mission in London the same standing as national delegations.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator who is now a special adviser to the European Commission president on UK matters, warned on Thursday that the UK should be “very careful” in how it handles the issue, insisting that the EU cannot be treated merely as an international organisation with lower diplomatic privileges than sovereign countries.
“I hope that we will be able together to find a clever and objective solution to the status of the EU in London,” he said. “I think it would be wise in my view for the UK to find a clever solution.”
“We will see what will be the final decision of the UK on this point, but they have to be very careful,” he said.
The BBC reported on Thursday that Britain was refusing to give João Vale de Almeida the full diplomatic status that is granted to other ambassadors. The Financial Times reported on the disagreement in May, since which the impasse has hardened.
The US quickly reversed a similar move in 2019 after a backlash including from Democratic politicians and EU institutions. The UK’s stance has already provoked criticism, including from some Conservative MPs such as
Tobias Ellwood, chair of the House of Commons defence select committee.
“This is simply petty,” Mr Ellwood said on Twitter on Thursday. “[New US president Joe] Biden commits to strengthening alliances and we engage in silly spats which will not help strengthen security and trade co-operation. We are better than this.”
David O’Sullivan, who was EU ambassador to the US at the time of the status downgrade there, said the UK decision to take a similar approach was “surprising”.
EU member states, including the UK, objected angrily to the move, which became apparent when Mr O’Sullivan found himself seated behind all the 150-plus bilateral envoys at former president George HW Bush’s funeral. The decision was quietly reversed, reverting to the full recognition granted by the Obama administration three years previously.
“I would be extremely surprised if the UK government were unwilling to accord full diplomatic recognition to the EU ambassador — as is the case in the vast majority of countries around the world, including the United States,” Mr O’Sullivan told the FT.
The commission said the UK was the only country among the 143 where the bloc has missions that did not give its ambassador status equivalent to national envoys. It also said the UK, as a signatory to the EU’s 2007 Lisbon treaty, had endorsed the argument that the bloc’s representatives should enjoy the same privileges and immunities as bilateral missions under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations.
“Nothing has changed since the UK’s exit from the European Union to justify any change in stance on the UK’s part,” the commission said.
Gordon Sondland, then Washington’s ambassador to the EU, declared the bloc was a “uniquely important organisation, and one of America’s most valuable partners in ensuring global security and prosperity”.
David Lidington, a former senior Conservative cabinet minister, said he hoped London would not “pick a fight on this”. He said full diplomatic status for EU missions “doesn’t trouble” the UK’s fellow members of international organisations such as the Commonwealth and the so-called Five Eyes intelligence alliance.
UK non-recognition could also set a “bad precedent for regimes that hate EU ambassadors speaking up for human rights defenders”, he added.
People close to the Brexit negotiations on the EU side said that UK chief negotiator David Frost had sometimes referred to the union as Mr Barnier’s “organisation”, prompting head-scratching on the other side of the negotiating table.
Downing Street said the Foreign Office “continues to engage with the EU on the long-term arrangement for the EU delegation in the UK”, and refused to comment on the outcome of those talks.
British officials insisted that the “international organisation” status London had given the EU gave “very similar” privileges and immunities to those enjoyed by bilateral ambassadors. These include inviolability of premises and documents, and immunity from prosecution for officials for acts performed in the course of their duties.
Also on Thursday, the UK government said that Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, previously deputy chief negotiator for the UK in the Brexit trade talks, would take over from Tim Barrow as the head of Britain’s diplomatic mission to the EU.
Additional reporting by Helen Warrell in London