Among the many bureaucratic and logistical challenges facing the European Union in the wake of Brexit, one significant but often overlooked question has been what to do with the European Parliament Liaison Office (EPLO) in London’s Smith Square and the European officials who work there.
The European Parliament Liaison Office had co-existed peacefully in London’s former Conservative Central Office building with the European Commission since 2009. With the Commission leaving after Brexit, and Parliament having no legal authority to operate independently outside of the Member States, the Liaison Office needed a new post-Brexit mission and partnership.
But while the organisational structures needed significant realignment to meet the requirements of the European Union, the United Kingdom, and various longstanding conventions governing diplomatic properties, there was never any question that the office would, in fact, remain open.
“It was never in doubt,” Susanne Oberhauser, head of the European Parliament Liaison Office in London, tells The Parliament Magazine. “Very early on there was a decision by Parliament’s Bureau that Parliament would maintain a presence in London.”
A career veteran of the European Parliament, Oberhauser took the role in 2019, when it was becoming increasingly clear the office would need to transition. At the end of January 2020, after the Brexit agreement was signed, the Commission Representation moved out of Smith Square, the EU Delegation moved in, and a new partnership was formed.
“It was never in doubt. Very early on there was a decision by Parliament’s Bureau that Parliament would maintain a presence in London.”
That transition resulted in the European Parliament Liaison Office in London becoming only the second such office outside the EU, with the first being in Washington, DC. According to Antoine Ripoll, who previously served as Director of the Liaison Office in Washington and currently serves as Director of Parliamentary Relations with Southeast Asia and ASEAN, Parliament is planning to expand its presence in Jakarta to cover parliamentary affairs in Southeast Asia and relations with ASEAN; in Addis Ababa to cover Africa and relations with the African Union; and in New York City to develop the EU network with the UN.
But the London office retains its distinction as the first, and only, to have transitioned from working in tandem with a Commission Representation to working alongside an EU Delegation. (The UK Permanent Representative in Brussels also had to change its status, and as a non-Member State is now a UK Mission.)
In a series of press releases and videos issued by top EU diplomat Josep Borrell on 2 January 2020, the United Kingdom became, officially, a “third country,” and with its change in status so too came the change in status of European diplomats in London.
“The diplomatic representation of the European Union from now on will be ensured by an EU Delegation, under my authority as High Representative of the Union for Foreign affairs and Security Policy,” Borrell wrote in a statement, echoing his message in a similar video. “The premises of the former Commission Representation in London will become those of the European Union Delegation.”
Shortly after those messages were released, João Vale de Almeida was dispatched as the first head of the EU Delegation to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Vale de Almeida had previously served as EU ambassador to the United Nations and, more notably for the person who would lead the new EU Delegation in the UK, as the first EU ambassador to the United States of America.
With more than six million European Union citizens living in the United Kingdom, providing diaspora support, cultural resources, educational programmes – including a European Parliament Ambassadors School programme – and access to voting in European Parliament elections could itself fill the activities of the London Liaison Office.
“We are part of the relations with the host country, but we are not part of the European Union External Action Service [EEAS, the EU’s diplomatic service], and we are not under the authority and the hierarchy of the Delegation. And [in that way] Washington is very much a model for us here,” Oberhauser explains.
“However, the mission statement and the remit are very different from Washington,” Oberhauser adds. “Whereas Washington is more focused on liaison with Congress, our focus and mission statement is the Parliamentary liaison and supporting that between the [European] Parliament and the Houses of Parliament here, Common and Lords, but also the Parliaments of the devolved nations.”
While some of the details are yet to be finalised, the impact on staff is already being felt. Because British citizens cannot be diplomats of a foreign entity in their own country, the Delegation has requested that UK nationals serving as officials of the European Parliament be transferred to other posts. (The requirement does not apply to locally hired support staff.)
In anticipation of complying with the request, all colleagues who were UK nationals or UK dual nationals were transferred by 1 April either back to Brussels or other EU posts, and have been replaced by colleagues from Washington, Paris and Brussels. Currently, the office has eight full-time permanent officials, with the possibility of adding more as part of an envoy scheme similar to the Washington office.
The London office retains its distinction as the first, and only, to have transitioned from working in tandem with a Commission Representation to working alongside an EU Delegation.
“We still have staff here that were here long before Brexit but in order to comply with being in a third country and the Vienna convention, and also what the EEAS requires, we have prepared our internal compliance with that,” Oberhauser says.
There is another, less explicit reason for maintaining a London office – with the issue of Brexit still being hotly contested, and a roadmap set for a second Scottish referendum, the European Union seems to be keeping its doors open for some or all of the UK to return to the fold.
However, advocating for a British return to the EU isn’t part of the remit of the Liaison Office currently, at least not officially.
“The focus that we have with young people and education is clearly because we don’t want to have further alienation,” Oberhauser says. “It could lead at some stage to something else but that’s not the immediate objective, and personally, I think it will be quite some time before we see anything like that.”