EU-UK row over ambassador’s status worsens amid leak of letter

Foreign affairs chief raises concerns over UK refusal to grant EU mission full diplomatic status

British prime minister Boris Johnson has been accused of ‘insulting’ the EU. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

A near-yearlong row about the UK’s refusal to grant full diplomatic status to the EU mission to the UK has worsened, with the leak of a letter revealing the EU foreign affairs chief has serious concerns about the status being given to EU officials in the UK.

The issue is likely to be discussed at an EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting on Monday, the first such meeting of member states' foreign ministers since the post-Brexit transition period ended.

The UK has been insisting it will not give the EU ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida, and his 25-strong mission the privileges and immunities afforded to diplomats under the Vienna Convention.

A spokesman for British prime minister Boris Johnson confirmed on Thursday: "The EU, its delegation and staff will receive the privileges and immunities necessary to enable them to carry out their work in the UK effectively.


“It’s a matter of fact that the EU is a collective of nations, but it’s not a state . . . in its own right.”

The spokesman was speaking after the BBC reported that EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell had written to foreign secretary Dominic Raab directly to raise his concerns about the situation.

In the letter last November Mr Borrell says: “Your service have sent us a draft proposal for an establishment agreement about which we have serious concerns.

“The arrangements offered do not reflect the specific character of the EU, nor do they respond to the future relationship between the EU and the UK as an important third country.”

The UK foreign office says it would set a precedent if it treated what is an international body in the same way as a nation state. It says such a move would lead to a proliferation of other international organisations seeking diplomatic status.

International organisations such as the International Maritime Organisation are on the UK diplomatic list, but not granted full diplomatic immunity.

Although the UK insists its position on the mission’s status is not born of Euroscepticism, the UK is virtually unique in taking this position. The bloc enjoys full diplomatic status with 142 other countries around the world where it has delegations, with its ambassadors granted the same status in those countries as diplomats representing sovereign nations.

Under former president Donald Trump, the US downgraded the diplomatic status of the EU mission there for nearly a year, but then reversed its position in March 2019.

Wider ambivalence

The UK position reflects a wider ambivalence within the UK about holding discussions with the EU over a common foreign and security policy post-Brexit.

The UK has since Brexit set most store by holding discussions either bilaterally with the remaining 27 EU member states, or by holding discussions in a special E3 format alongside France and Germany. The E3 recently held collective discussions on the Iran nuclear deal with Gulf state foreign ministers.

Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator with the UK on Brexit, said: "I hope that we will be able to get up to find a clever and objective solution to the status of the EU in London. I think it would be very wise in my view for the UK to find a clever solution."

However, EU officials have privately accused the UK foreign office of hypocrisy because when the EU's foreign service – known as the External Action Service – was set up in 2010 as a result of the Lisbon treaty, the UK signed up to proposals that EU diplomats be granted the "privileges and immunities equivalent to those referred to in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of April 18th, 1961". The UK could argue it is no longer bound to this agreement since it has left the EU.

G7 meeting

The two most senior EU officials will attend the meeting of the G7 in Cornwall in June as participating members alongside member states France, Germany and Italy.

Lord Adonis, a strongly pro-European British Labour peer, said: "Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab have decided not just to leave the EU but to insult it – denying full diplomatic status to the EU ambassador being the latest insult. Very unwise.

“The Italian writer Niccolò Machiavelli once wrote: ‘People should either be caressed or crushed. If you do them minor damage they will get their revenge.’”

The EU mission in the UK is active in trying to explain EU thinking, including most recently on how the City of London will be treated post-Brexit. The emphasis of the mission since its inception has been on building co-operation between the UK and EU.

Mr Almeida is regarded as a very senior EU diplomat, having previously served as EU ambassador to the UN from 2015 to 2019, and EU ambassador to the US from 2010 to 2014. – Guardian/Reuters/PA