Downing Street has been warned by Brussels that downgrading the status of the EU’s ambassador to the UK will poison diplomatic relations for years to come.
The UK has so far declined to grant the bloc’s representative, João Vale de Almeida, and his 25-strong mission the privileges and immunities afforded to diplomats under the Vienna convention.
The British government’s approach has stirred anger in Brussels as the EU has 143 delegations around the world, each of which has full diplomatic status.
Speaking after a meeting of foreign ministers for the 27 member states, Josep Borrell, a former Spanish minister who is the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, said there was “clear view” in the capitals at the apparent snub.
“It’s not a friendly signal,” he said, “the first one that the United Kingdom has sent to us immediately after leaving the European Union. If things continue like this there are no good prospects.”
The Foreign Office’s opening position with the EU is that it does not want to set a precedent by treating an international body in the same way as a nation state.
Other international organisations would then apply, it is argued, leading to a proliferation of others seeking diplomatic status.
It is claimed the lower status the government is willing to grant the EU’s delegation would not impact on the ability of their staff to carry out their job with only an audience with the Queen being the major difference.
The protection offered by the UK includes embassy property and documents being inviolable, and some staff being exempt from taxes. No delegation staff can be prosecuted for acts committed in the course of their diplomatic duties and the head of the mission’s residential home is inviolable. They are not required to pay any taxes or open personal baggage at airports.
But Borrell warned that the attitude in London was “unacceptable”.
He said: “You know, we do not ask for something new or we don’t ask for special treatment. The external status of the European Union is recognised by countries and international organisations around the world. And we expect that United kingdom to treat the European Union delegations accordingly, and without delay.
“We have 143 delegations around the world. Without a single exception, all host states have accepted to grant these delegations and their staff and establish the equivalent to that of diplomatic missions of the states under the Vienna convention.
“And the UK is very well aware of that – 143 states around the world, all of them have have reciprocal treatment based on this convention is a standard practice, a practice between equal partners. And we are confident that we can clear this issue with our friends in London in a satisfactory manner. But we will not accept that the United Kingdom will be the only country in the world that doesn’t recognise the delegation of the European Union the equivalent of a diplomatic mission.”
The British approach follows a pattern of behaviour exhibited during the trade and security negotiations over the last year. The UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, irritated his counterpart, Michel Barnier, by repeatedly referring to the EU as “your organisation”.
The UK also declined to open negotiations on foreign policy coordination during the talks, preferring to focus on bilateral arrangements with key member states.
The issue of the EU delegation’s status remains under consideration in Whitehall, however, with no final decision yet made. The EU had leaked a letter from Borrell complaining about the failure to grant full status on the day that the appointment of the UK’s head of mission to the EU, Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, was announced, in an attempt to pile pressure on the government to give way.
Should the UK continue to reject the EU’s appeal for full status, there is a risk that Croisdale-Appleby’s status could be downgraded although it is more likely that the issue will be settled in the coming weeks.