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Not Granting the EU Full Diplomatic Immunity Will Hurt British Interests

ARTICLES - 25 January 2021

The UK is refusing to give the EU’s Delegation to the UK the same diplomatic status as it does to national embassies. This decision is short-sighted and could damage the Global Britain brand, argues Georgina Wright.

Of all the diplomatic hills to die on, this should not be one of them. Last week, the BBC reported that the UK was refusing to grant the EU ambassador and his staff full diplomatic immunity. Among other things, this would give EU diplomats and their families protection from civil and criminal prosecution. But the Foreign Office has argued that the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which sets out these rights and privileges, only applies to serving diplomats from nation states - not those representing international organisations.

The EU has been granted full diplomatic status in all 142 countries it has offices in, so the UK’s decision not to do so would be unprecedented. Even Donald Trump, who in 2018 downgraded the diplomatic status of the EU mission to Washington, reversed the decision a few months later after criticism from EU countries which included the UK. Britain would also be breaking with tradition given that, as a member state, it had no problem recognising the EU’s full diplomatic immunity. Crucially, this latest spat in the UK-EU relationship carries political risk which could damage British interests in the long-term.

EU representations have long been granted diplomatic immunity

The first EU mission dates back to 1955 when the then European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) opened an office in London. While the UK government is right that the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations only covers the rights and privileges of diplomats from nation-states, and not international organisations, it conveniently ignores the fact that the ECSC’s representative (and EU ambassadors around the world) already enjoyed full diplomatic immunity.

The Foreign Office has argued that the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which sets out these rights and privileges, only applies to serving diplomats from nation states - not those representing international organisations.

In addition, many staff serving in EU missions are seconded directly from national ministries of foreign affairs, partly to reflect the make-up of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s de facto foreign ministry. When the EEAS was created in 2009, EU countries decided that its staff should come from the EU Commission, the Council (the grouping of the 27 governments) and national ministries of foreign affairs respectively. The EU’s own mission to the UK has staff whose previous posting was in a national embassy in London.

The UK is limiting its sources of influence

There may be a UK-EU partnership agreement on the table, but it is hardly the end of UK-EU talks. From 2026, the UK and EU will conduct annual negotiations on fisheries and energy cooperation for example. The UK and EU will also be holding monthly talks in the UK-EU Joint Partnership Council - an institutional set-up of 19 specialised committees and 4 working groups to manage the UK-EU trade and cooperation agreement and resolve any disputes. The UK government stands a better chance of success if it engages the EU Ambassador in the run up to these talks. 

An EU ambassador’s remit is broad. He or she represents the EU abroad. In cities like Washington D.C., Moscow and now London, EU missions also act as a convening point: bringing together ambassadors from all member states to share information and build common EU positions. He or she is responsible for informing the EU institutions about the latest political twists and turns - especially if they think that these will have bearings on the EU’s interests. It will also be up to the Ambassador to explain to EU officials in the Joint Partnership Council the UK’s political context, and the motivation behind some of their positions.

This is why the EU thinks so carefully about who it appoints to key cities around the world. The EU’s current Ambassador to London, João Vale de Almeida is very highly regarded in the EU, having previously served as EU ambassador to the UN and EU ambassador to the US. The refusal to grant the EU mission full diplomatic status will diminish that trust and may even limit the exchange between them.

It is not a good look for Global Britain

Yet, the failure to grant the EU full diplomatic status [...]  could also make the exercise of working with the EU outside the scope of the TCA all the more difficult.

This year will be an important year for Global Britain with the UK hosting the G7 in June and the COP-26 climate conference later in the year. To ensure their success, the UK will need to show that it can build and deliver common positions. It stands a better chance of succeeding if it can get the US and the EU to agree with it. 

The Joint Partnership Council is designed to discuss the UK-EU agreement, not areas for close cooperation that fall outside of its scope. If the UK is serious about being a global power, it will need to engage the EU and find new ways of engaging with it. Throughout Brexit negotiations, the UK demanded that the EU treat it as a sovereign equal. Yet, the failure to grant the EU full diplomatic status appears to do the exact opposite. It could also make the exercise of working with the EU outside the scope of the TCA all the more difficult.

For this reason, and those listed above, the UK would be wise to grant the EU delegation full diplomatic status - and soon.

 

Copyright: Aaron Chown / POOL / AFP

 

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