G7: Britain to grant EU ambassador full diplomatic status after protracted row

UK previously refused to grant EU embassy the same rights as those of a sovereign state

Kim Sengupta
Diplomatic Editor
Wednesday 05 May 2021 21:09
<p>Britain’s foreign secretary Dominic Raab (left) and EU foreign affairs representative Josep Borrell meet ahead of talks during Wednesday’s G7 meeting in London</p>

Britain’s foreign secretary Dominic Raab (left) and EU foreign affairs representative Josep Borrell meet ahead of talks during Wednesday’s G7 meeting in London

Britain has given full diplomatic status to the European Union’s mission in London, ending a prolonged dispute in which Boris Johnson’s government was accused of putting Brexit dogma above international protocol.

The agreement to grant ambassadorJoão Vale de Almeida and his colleagues the same rights as that of the mission of a sovereign state came during the visit of the European Union foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, to the G7 summit.  

The British government’s decision reverses its previous position, which only recognised the EU embassy as that of an international organisation. It drew an angry reaction in Brussels with Mr Borrell stating: “We will not accept that the UK will be the only country in the world that does not accept the delegation of the EU as the equivalent of a diplomatic mission.”   

Anthony Blinken, the US secretary of state, is among those attending the group’s foreign ministers conference. Unlike Donald Trump, who forcefully advocated Brexit, Joe Biden’s administration has repeatedly stressed that the US wanted amicable relations between London and Brussels.

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has been trying to resolve the problem, say European diplomats.

In a joint statement, Mr Borrell and Mr Raab said: “We are pleased to have reached an agreement together, based on goodwill and pragmatism, on an establishment agreement for the EU delegation to the UK.   

“The EU ambassador will have a status consistent with heads of missions of states, including agrément and presentation of the credentials to the head of state.  EU delegation staff will have the privileges and immunities needed to function effectively, while allowing for effective administration of justice, and we look forward to moving ahead and tackling global challenges together.” 

One reason for Britain now agreeing to end the row, say diplomatic sources, is that Brussels had made it clear that the recently arrived UK ambassador to the European Union, Lindsay Appleby, will face restrictions until the issue is settled.

Mr Appleby, who took up his post in Brussels four months ago from his previous post of director-general, EU Exit, at the Foreign Office, has been left out of official EU communications sent to other legations. 

As well the reluctance among some Brexiters in the government to accept the sovereign status of a European Union embassy, there is believed to have been apprehension about extending diplomatic privileges following the case of Harry Dunn, who died in an August 2019 road accident involving the spouse of an American diplomat.

Anna Sacoolas, the wife of Jonathan Sacoolas, a CIA officer based at a US air force listening station at RAF Croughton, Northamptonshire, fled the country with the assistance of American officials claiming diplomatic immunity.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had stated that Ms Sacoolas was to be charged with causing death by dangerous driving over the killing of 19-year-old Mr Dunn who was riding a motorcycle at the time of the crash. The Home Office has filed formal request to the US authorities for Ms Sacoolas’s extradition.

Both British and European officials say that the loopholes of the type revealed by the case will not exist under the agreement on the European Union mission.

The agreement on diplomatic status came as Michel Barnier produced a withering critic of Britain’s approach to Brexit. The EU’s chief negotiator says in diaries just published that it was determined by “the quarrels, low blows, multiple betrayals and thwarted ambitions of a certain number of Tory MPs”.  

Describing Conservative Party infighting, he held that the result was “political piracy … They will go to any length. The current team in Downing St is not up to the challenges of Brexit nor to the responsibility that is theirs for having wanted Brexit. Simply, I no longer trust them.”

The row over the EU embassy also brought claims of British untrustworthiness. The government appeared to be ignoring its obligations as a signatory to the Treaty of Lisbon in 2010, which set up the EU missions stating that they should be granted the "privileges and immunities equivalent to those referred to in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations…”.   

Critics pointed out that the European Union’s diplomatic missions are given the same rights as those of sovereign states in 143 nations around the world, from Afghanistan to Zambia, including in states with the world’s largest economies – the US, Japan, China and India.

This is the case even in countries on which the European Union has imposed sanctions, such as Russia, Syria and Venezuela, as well as other states where the missions have held governments to account over human rights abuse.

Antipathy towards a new EU mission surfaced soon after the Brexit vote with some Eurosceptic MPs, including the leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees Mogg, suggesting that the building where it is based, Europa House in Smith Square, Westminster, should be handed over to the Conservatives because it used to be the party headquarters. 

At one point during the negotiations the British government proposed that the EU mission should have the same status as multinational bodies, such as, for example, the International Maritime Organisation.

However, the government’s stance had been widely criticised by MPs and peers including the Tory chairpersons of the Commons’ foreign and defence committees, Tom Tugdenhat and Tobias Ellwood, and former party leader and foreign secretary William Hague, who argued for diplomatic status for the mission.

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