UK in diplomatic spat with EU over ambassador rights

The UK has been accused of “childish petulance” after it refused to grant the EU’s ambassador to Britain full diplomatic privileges.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

22 Jan 2021

The EU’s External Action Service has been incensed with the arrangements offered to the EU's ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida, following the UK’s exit from the bloc.

The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office wants to treat the EU delegation only as representatives of an international organisation, meaning its diplomats would not have the full protection of the Vienna Convention.

It is claimed this contrasts with 142 other countries around the world where the EU has delegations and where its ambassadors are all granted the same status as diplomats representing sovereign nations.

Josep Borrell, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, has written to UK foreign minister Dominic Raab to express his "serious concerns" and the issue will be discussed by EU foreign ministers on Monday.

Speaking on Friday, Denis MacShane, a former Europe Minister in the UK, accused the UK of “humiliating” the EU. He told The Parliament Magazine, “The UK just looks childish and petulant in downgrading the status of the EU ambassador in London.”

French MEP Nathalie Loiseau, a member of the European Parliament’s UK Coordination Group and a former French Europe Minister, said, "Denying the EU representation in London due status under our treaties is a stench of Trumpism in English sauce.”

Denying the EU representation in London due status under our treaties is a stench of Trumpism in English sauce” French MEP Nathalie Loiseau

Peter Stano, lead spokesperson for EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, told The Parliament Magazine that EU delegations are accorded privileges and immunities equivalent to those of diplomatic missions under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations by host states.

He said, “The UK, as a signatory to the Lisbon Treaty, is well aware of the EU’s status in external relations and was cognisant and supportive of this status while it was an EU member. Nothing has changed since the UK’s exit from the EU to justify any change in stance on the UK’s part. The EU’s status in external relations and its subsequent diplomatic status is amply recognised by countries and international organisations around the world, and we expect the UK to treat the EU delegation accordingly and without delay.”

The status of the EU delegation in London was not part of the negotiations on a future agreement with the UK. Stano says, “Now, having agreed on the basis for future relations (TCA), we should also set up a proper diplomatic framework based on reciprocity for our cooperation and for the purpose of the implementation of this agreement."

He says that granting reciprocal treatment based on the Vienna Convention is standard practice between equal partners and adds, "We are confident that we can clear this issue with our friends in London in a satisfactory manner.”

Stano said the EU is not a “typical” international organisation and has established delegations in third countries and at international organisations. The EU has 143 delegations, equivalent to diplomatic missions, around the world.

“Without exception, all host states have accepted to grant these delegations and their staff a status equivalent to that of diplomatic missions of states under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and the UK is well aware of this fact,” Stano added.

“Without exception, all host states have accepted to grant these delegations and their staff a status equivalent to that of diplomatic missions of states under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and the UK is well aware of this fact” EU lead spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Peter Stano

Responding on Friday, a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson told The Parliament Magazine, “The EU, its delegation and staff will receive the privileges and immunities necessary to enable them to carry out their work in the UK effectively.” The UK says it will continue to engage with the EU on the long-term arrangements for the EU delegation to the UK.

A source said, “Negotiations are ongoing, and it would be inappropriate to pre-empt the outcome of those. It is untrue to say that staff at the EU delegation will not have appropriate status. The point is that, regardless of the agreement reached, the EU, its delegation and staff will receive the privileges and immunities necessary to enable them to carry out their work in the UK effectively. It is also not true to say that international organisations are not offered privileges and immunities similar to those of diplomatic missions.

“Diplomatic missions and international organisations (IOs) are offered very similar privileges and immunities. Like diplomats, officials of IOs are immune from prosecution in respect of acts performed in the course of their duties, are also exempt from certain host country taxes and can import personal belongings to the UK duty-free on arrival.”

“The IO head of delegation enjoys similar privileges and immunities to the head of a diplomatic mission. For example, both have certain immunities, are exempt from host country taxes such as council tax or petrol duty, have inviolable residential premises and are exempt from inspection of personal baggage.”

Further comment came from Denis MacShane, former UK minister of state at the Foreign Office under Tony Blair, who said, “Of all people in government Boris Johnson should be first to recognise the status of EU representatives. His father, Stanley, was a European Commission official for many years and the European taxpayer paid the prime minister’s school fees at the expensive Brussels International School and then Eton.

“The EU, its delegation and staff will receive the privileges and immunities necessary to enable them to carry out their work in the UK effectively” UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson

“Britain has ambassadors to any number of international organisations from the OECD to the World Trade Organisation and expects them to have full diplomatic status - not paying local taxes, the CD number plate, and other assorted rights laid down in international conventions.”

“Our man in Brussels will not take kindly to having his status downgraded which is the easy and obvious reciprocal action the EU can take if No 10 – or is it Dominic Raab? - insists on this childish, petulant decision that henceforth the EU ambassador to the UK will be humiliated by losing the normal diplomatic status that all other states which have an EU ambassador in post grant to EU diplomats.”

“The Trump administration did something similar two years ago at a time when the now departed Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was in full hissy fit flow denouncing Brussels and President Trump was defining the EU as a ‘foe.” The threat was quickly withdrawn as the very self-important Trump ambassador to the EU, a former hotelier, would have lost all his rights and privileges in exchange.”

He went on, “The rupture with Europe has many fall-outs but the loss of collegial and cooperative work with EU Member States’ ambassadors, as well as with the EU overseas missions, can only weaken the Foreign Office and the quality of information that flows into the red boxes of the Prime Minister and the Queen as head of state who sees all diplomatic cables.”

“Each morning at 8 a.m. for example, there is what is called “Coordination” in Geneva when all EU ambassadors, including until recently the British ambassador, met to discuss what would be on the agenda for decisions at the various UN agencies like the WTO, the World Health Organization, the UN Human Rights Commission, the International Labour Organisation, and other bodies that decide international conventions and regulations Britain abides by.”

“There is a mass of information and experience shared in that meeting as the EU decided its common line to take. Now the UK ambassador can enjoy his croissant and coffee in peace by himself without being part of the joint discussions and decision-making process.”

“I hope that we will be able to find a clever and objective solution to the status of the EU in London. It would be wise in my view for the UK to find a clever solution” former EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier

“As Minister for Latin America, I always asked our ambassador to organise a breakfast with other EU ambassadors and the Papal Nuncio to obtain as much information as possible before meeting ministers in Colombia, Peru or Venezuela.”

“The Prime Minister has said he wants “warm” relations with Brussels and with EU Member States now that we have left the EU, but it seems an odd and unprofessional way to begin this new relationship by insulting the Ambassador the EU sends to London. Like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson should think again.”

Michel Barnier, who negotiated the Brexit deal, said, “I know the spin of UK authorities speaking about the EU like an international organisation. But we are not an international organisation like the others. I hope that we will be able to find a clever and objective solution to the status of the EU in London. It would be wise in my view for the UK to find a clever solution.”

Read the most recent articles written by Martin Banks - New EU regulations on AI seek to ban mass and indiscriminate surveillance

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