Our man has edge on French

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The Independent Online

Diplomatic Correspondent

While yesterday's European debate raged in the House of Commons, the Foreign Office was quietly displaying the impeccable sense of timing that is thought to distinguish British diplomatic skill from its continental counterparts.

As an uncomfortable spokesman at the Quai d'Orsay (the French foreign office) announced the closure on economic grounds of six French embassies and 15 consulates, the Foreign Office said Britain, as a result of financial prudence, would be able to open four new embassies, three new consulates and seven new trade missions - none of them in Europe.

The French foreign ministry said it was obliged to freeze about £62m in budget funds to reduce the overall state deficit. Diplomatic sources in Paris said the curbs would also restrict plans to promote the influence of the French language in North Africa, the Far East and Indochina. The ministry did not name the doomed missions.

In London, the Foreign Office said reductions in support staff and other economies would cut staff from 6,346 to 5,900, while allowing the creation of 14 new posts and the appointment of 100 new commercial staff abroad.

There was, however, a price to pay. The French - to whom diplomacy automatically equals grandeur - might not necessarily be impressed by the modest new British embassies in Santo Domingo, Tbilisi, Yerevan and Ashkhabad, capital of Turkmenistan. The new consulates in Ekaterinburg, Kuching and Chiang Mai are, perhaps, a little more redolent of past mystique.

And France, mindful of its own ancient relations with Italy, would surely be horrified at Britain's decision to close its consulates in Turin, Genoa and Venice, their work henceforth to be conducted from Rome and Milan.

The closure of the Venice consulate brings to an end an epoch of British diplomatic contact dating back to the long reign of the Most Serene Republic and through the turbulent visits of Byron and Shelley, both of whom dined with the consul.

What, too, of the "immortal" ambassador Sir Henry Wotton, resident from 1614 to 1618? Sir Henry gave to his profession a "mission statement" it has yet to live down, "Legatus est vir bonus peregre missus ad mentiendum reipublicae causa," better remembered as "an ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country".

Perhaps the Foreign Secretary is privately glad to close that particular chapter of British diplomatic tradition.