Of all people in government Boris Johnson should be first to recognise the status of European Union representatives. His father, Stanley, was a European commission official for many years and the European taxpayer paid the prime minister’s school fees at the expensive Brussels International School and then Eton.
However, in a row that has been rumbling for a year alongside Brexit trade talks, the government is refusing to give full diplomatic status to the EU’s ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida and his 25-strong mission. The Foreign Office claims it does not want to set a precedent by treating an international body in the same way it treats a nation state, with diplomats afforded the privileges and immunities under the Vienna Convention.
Britain has ambassadors to any number of international organisations from the OECD to the World Trade Organization, and expects them to have full diplomatic status – not paying local taxes, the CD number plate, and other assorted rights. The UK insists its head of delegation to the World Bank and the IMF also have ambassadorial status.
Our man in Brussels, Sir Tim Barrow, was previously UK ambassador in Moscow, and he is unlikely to take kindly to having his own status downgraded, which is the obvious reciprocal action the EU can take if No 10 – or is it Dominic Raab? – insists on this childish, petulant decision to refuse the normal diplomatic status that 142 countries around the world grant to EU delegations.
In 2018, the Trump administration did something similar, at time when the US president was denouncing the EU as a “foe”. A year later the decision was reversed, perhaps Trump’s then ambassador to the EU, former hotelier Gordon Sondland, was concerned he would have lost all his rights and privileges in exchange.
Britain’s rupture with Europe has many fallouts. The loss of collegial and cooperative work with member states’ ambassadors as well as with the EU overseas missions can only weaken the Foreign Office and the quality of information that flows into the red box of the prime minister and others who receive diplomatic cables.
Each morning at 8am, for example, there is what is called “coordination” in Geneva, where all EU ambassadors, including until recently the British ambassador, meet to discuss what is on the agenda for decisions at the various UN agencies such as the WTO, the World Health Organization and numerous other bodies that decide international conventions and regulations Britain abides by. There is a mass of information and experience shared in these meetings as the EU decides on common lines to take – the UK, however, can no longer take part and will miss out on vital insights.
When I was a government minister, penny pinchers in the Treasury told the FCO to merge the UK embassy to the Holy See with our Italian embassy in Rome. The ambassador would be given an office in the bilateral embassy and his handsome house and garden would be sold off at a nice profit to the Treasury. But the pope put his foot down and said the UK had to maintain a separate embassy with a full-rank ambassador – otherwise the Vatican might have to break diplomatic relations with London. With Tony Blair on the verge of embracing Catholicism, I told officials to drop the idea, and more particularly because the Vatican had been useful in getting some Royal Navy personnel released after they accidentally steered their boat into Iranian waters. These myriad connections do matter.
The prime minister has said he wants “warm” relations with Brussels and with member states now that we have left the EU. Failure to secure these will be detrimental to the interests of the UK. It seems, then, a very odd and unprofessional way to begin this new relationship by immediately insulting the very ambassador the EU sends to London. Like Donald Trump before him, Boris Johnson should think again.