55. We Don’t Want To Spoil You, Mr Ambassador

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

24 January 2021

(To search the website see foot of page)

Chair’s blog

Follow My Blog

Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.

Whatever happens our friends and neighbours in the EU deserve and need to be treated with respect.

As a result of becoming what the government proudly but meaninglessly calls “an independent coastal state”, the UK, in common with most other countries around the world, agreed to the appointment of an EU ambassador. João Vale de Almeida was named to this role in January 2020. And yet, a year on from the appointment, the UK governments position is that Mr de Almeida should not have the diplomatic privileges accorded to other ambassadors, and that his staff would equally be treated at best as second class diplomats. The explanation given was that the EU is not a nation state, but rather an international organisation, analogous to the UN and NATO. In the words of the PM: “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,”

That this decision was controversial is entirely obvious. It is without precedent – all 142 EU ambassadors around the world have been accorded full diplomatic status under the Vienna Convention. This is a policy enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty and supported by the UK while it was a member. Even in the US, where Trump tried to downgrade the EU embassy 2 years ago, this initiative did not last long, and justice has been restored.

So at a time of extreme diplomatic sensitivity, why would the UK act in this way? And why tell a man some time after his appointment that the job he is being asked to do is a different one from the job he accepted?  Is it simply to give the EU27 a slap in the face and to try to “put them in their place”? Or is it a signal that the UK wishes in future to negotiate on a bilateral basis with individual EU countries such as Germany and France? If the latter, then it shows a touching faith in the success of the “divide and rule” policy which was clearly so fruitless in negotiations both of the Withdrawal Agreement of 2019 and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) of 2020. It seems, in other words, to be a completely vacuous act.

On the other hand the downsides for all concerned are entirely obvious. Firstly, it shows up the blatant hypocrisy of a UK government which has spent the past number of years deriding the EU for turning into some kind of a “superstate”. If it is one it should be treated as such, and if not then why all the bellyaching? Secondly, this Prime Minister, perhaps in contrast to some of his underlings, has constantly emphasised the wish to remain on good terms with “our friends and allies” in the EU, and this is actually a necessity rather than a luxury. After all, the TCA is really only the beginning of negotiations. The “teething problems” (if that indeed is what they are) of the past three weeks highlight how much work there has is still to be done to achieve anything approaching a reasonable modus vivendi with the EU 27. And, with the loss of passporting rights, the UK services sector badly needs a certain amount of goodwill in trying to negotiate equivalence for the City of London, when there is actually very little hard negotiating capital left (good luck with that!). Causing the EU27 totally gratuitous upset seems to be about the worst possible thing to do at a time like this.

However, it is not just that. If the UK is allowed to get away with taking this step, it sets a precedent for other countries. Undemocratic states around the world are likely to take it as carte blanche to downgrade the EU delegations in their own capitals, thereby stripping diplomats of their protection and potentially leaving them open to bullying, harassment and arbitrary detention. It should be entirely obvious to the Prime Minister that the EU will not allow this to happen. It would almost certainly find ways in which to “punish” the UK (in the phrase beloved of the Express – as if punishing illegal behaviour was somehow unreasonable). At the very least they could reciprocate in kind, and, as happened in December, there could well be obstacles placed in the way of direct bilateral government to government communication.

In the words of an EU spokesman: “It seems petty. This is not about privileges, it’s about principle. What does it say about the UK, about how much the British signature is worth?”

It seems likely that this matter will finish up being resolved, possibly by a UK climbdown , and that it will emerge as yet another exercise in grandstanding in order to achieve some unrelated aim. However, it highlights continuing misunderstanding of the UK’s negotiating strength, and in addition it will reduce even further the respect in which this country is held around the world. It does, after all, come from a government which has form in behaving petulantly: few will fail to be reminded of its attempt to renege on the Northern Ireland protocol of the withdrawal agreement, which it made less than a year after signing it. The behaviour which this government has indulged in, in the name of patriotism, has caused not only contempt and derision around the world, but has also been a source of shame for many of its own citizens.

The EU Embassy in Smith Square, formerly Conservative Party Central Office
‘Brexit Means Brexit’

While all this is going on, of course, the reality of Brexit is becoming clearer by the day. Exporters, importers and haulage companies are all being hit by non tariff barriers which not only cause delays but add to costs. For perishable goods such as fish, and now equally obviously agricultural produce, this often leads to whole consignments having to be thrown away. And even exporters who have done everything by the book (not an easy ask) may fall foul of this because the have the misfortune to share lorry space with others who have not done so. This cannot but have a fatal effect on supply chains, UK exports, and the range of goods available to consumers, not to mention prices.

The government talks about “teething problems” as if that somehow made the matter trivial. If they are teething problems, then firstly a £23 million bailout for the fishing industry is not enough : in fairness all those industries which are affected should get equal help from government. But that is not going to happen because it will be frankly unaffordable. Furthermore, if they are indeed teething problems, then that raises the question of what the government is doing to resolve them. The evidence at the moment appears to be that it believes resolving them is up to others, even if the problem was of the government’s own making. Time is of the essence, as every day that goes by there are more and more businesses whose reserves have run out and will be forced to close permanently regardless of what solutions are found in the future. And the Department For International Trade has in effect admitted that this is a long-term issue: The best advice its representatives can give struggling companies is to set up an office within the EU.

Sadly, however, the evidence is that this talk of teething problems is yet another example of pathologically optimistic Brexiter bluster. Michel Barnier, speaking to our friend, RTE’s Tony Connelly,  has been very clear that as far as trade goes the TCA is the final word, the UK was warned that its economy would suffer and, even without the imposition of tariffs, that is the reality of Brexit. It is beyond words how much worse a no deal (“Australian”) Brexit would have been, and that is what Boris Johnson described as “a good outcome”.

Do we have a Government which does not understand or does not care or both?

We cannot restore the status quo of last December, leave alone the status quo of May 2016. What happens from now is a matter of damage limitation. It would require some tough decisions, even if we did not have the background of a pandemic. It really is time to call in the adults in the room.

The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe

Previous Blogs From The Chair

Previous blogs

Leave a Reply