The UK on Thursday showed no sign of changing tack after refusing to grant the EU embassy in London full diplomatic status — a snub that former US president Donald Trump also inflicted on the bloc but later reversed.
Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, insisted that the EU’s ambassador to London should be seen as representing an “international organisation”, rather than being treated as a national envoy.
The Foreign Office said that staff at the EU’s embassy — which occupies Margaret Thatcher’s former Conservative headquarters in Smith Square — enjoyed “very similar” privileges to those afforded to diplomats from nation states.
“The ambassador doesn’t get to present his credentials to the Queen, but surely it isn’t about that?” said one ally of Mr Raab. “The EU sees itself as a state — we see it as an international organisation.”
Brussels said there was nothing to justify the British government’s decision to refuse to give the EU mission in London the same standing as national delegations post-Brexit.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator who is now a special adviser to the European Commission president on UK matters, insisted the EU could not be treated merely as an international organisation with lower diplomatic privileges than sovereign countries.
“We will see what will be the final decision of the UK on this point, but they have to be very careful,” he said. Negotiations are continuing with Brussels, but British officials said it was unlikely there would be a change of heart.
The UK also announced on Thursday that Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, previously its deputy chief negotiator in the Brexit trade talks, would take over from Tim Barrow as the head of Britain’s diplomatic mission to the EU.
But in another symbol of Britain’s shifting post-Brexit relationship with the EU, Mr Croisdale-Appleby’s job will no longer be on a par with London’s ambassador to Washington in the Foreign Office pecking order.
Sir Tim was a Grade 4 diplomat while representing the UK as a member of the EU, while his successor in Brussels — at the new British mission — will be Grade 3, the same level as ambassadors in Paris and Berlin.
Diplomatic sources said that this was “a new job and a new role”, given that Britain’s ambassador was no longer representing an EU member state.
Representatives of international organisations have immunity from prosecution for actions committed in the course of their work, while their offices are inviolable and are not subject to local taxes.
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 first reported on the disagreement in May.
The US quickly reversed a similar move in 2019 after a backlash including from Democratic politicians and EU institutions.
“This is simply petty,” Tobias Ellwood, Tory chair of the Commons defence committee, 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”.
“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.
Additional reporting by Helen Warrell in London