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EU Ambassador to the UK: Diplomatic Status

Volume 809: debated on Monday 25 January 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to grant full diplomatic status under the Vienna Convention to the European Union’s ambassador to the United Kingdom.

My Lords, we continue to engage with the European Union on the long-term arrangements for the EU delegation to the UK. I do not wish to pre-empt the outcome of those discussions. I assure noble Lords that we are committed to ensuring that the EU delegation, the head of delegation and staff have the privileges and immunities they need to function effectively. We want a relationship with the EU based on friendly co-operation. The EU delegation has an important role to play in this.

My Lords, this is about whether the Government are treating the new EU partnership with the seriousness it deserves, or whether they are squandering good will—indeed, being “petty”, in the words of the Conservative chair of the Defence Select Committee—at the expense of the UK’s real interests. Not only will the UK be negotiating for years to come to fill the gaps in the TCA, but any easing of the burden of Brexit red tape will require EU co-operation. Can the Minister therefore assure me that the Government are not acting in a misguided belief that they are acquiring leverage, since this will not work, and that they will grant ambassador status?

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s last point, as I indicated in my Answer, we are in discussions with the EU. I share her view: as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said, we want to be the best ally and the best partner to the European Union. I assure her that those discussions are being engaged in equally forcefully on our side to ensure that the outcome is optimum for both sides.

My Lords, I admire the Minister personally, but surely he can see that the Government’s initial decision not to grant full status to the EU ambassador will be seen by the rest of the international community as peevish and vindictive. This being Burns Night, I commend to the Minister Robert Burns’s invocation:

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An’ foolish notion”.

Taking that to mind, in the discussions due to take place will he urge his fellow Ministers to reverse this blunder and do the honourable thing?

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord’s poetic interlude and value his contribution, as ever. I assure him that the Government have not stated any public position in this regard, apart from the fact that we continue to negotiate and work with the EU on the long-term arrangements. As I said, we desire an optimum outcome that works for both sides.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Government’s decision is gratuitously offensive, not only to the EU authorities in Brussels and the other member states, but to Portugal, our oldest ally, since the ambassador, João Vale de Almeida, is a Portuguese diplomat? Can my noble friend also give us a concrete example of what benefit this unnecessary action will bring this country?

My Lords, I listened very carefully to my noble friend, as I always do. I assure her that, as I mentioned, we are engaging with the EU on the long-term arrangements for the delegation, which will be by mutual agreement. We have not yet reached that point. I therefore do not wish to pre-empt those discussions, but I reassure her once again that the EU delegation and its head will have all the privileges and immunities they need for their mission to the United Kingdom to function effectively.

My Lords, the UK approved the decision taken by the Council of EU Ministers in July 2010 in setting up the External Action Service that EU delegations in third countries should have

“privileges and immunities equivalent to those referred to in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations”.

While we were a member state, 142 countries around the world granted this status to EU delegations so that they could do their work effectively. The nature of the EU has not changed. Why is there even an issue to be negotiated with the EU about its status in the UK?

My Lords, it is not for me to answer about what other countries offer the EU in terms of privileges and immunities. I can confirm that the EU delegation has the necessary privileges and immunities to enable it to carry out its work in the UK effectively. As I said—noble Lords will acknowledge that this is one of those occasions where I am, in general, repeating the key message I seek to deliver—we are currently live in negotiations with the European Union on this very issue. In no manner should I pre-empt the outcomes of those important discussions.

My Lords, I detect an imminent U-turn. As the Minister knows, the UK has worked very closely with EU ambassadors in many countries to make sure that approaches are agreed and pressure is as effective as possible. Will the UK no longer recognise them as ambassadors, further weakening the UK’s ability to muster support for common approaches on issues, including human rights, an area for which he has personal responsibility?

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that we will continue to work with EU representatives across the world, as well as the EU directly, on important priorities and our shared values, including human rights.

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite keen to suggest that the difference between the status of nation state embassies and that of international organisations is minor, so can he explain why we are going through this process, which will waste not only the energy of his department but good will by insisting on the latter?

My Lords, when the noble Lord rises to speak I often look to his expression. On this occasion it was one of deep concern, accompanied by a frown. I assure him that I hear very clearly what he says. Of course a range of international organisations enjoy privileges and immunities in the United Kingdom, including those for their heads of mission. Because we are where we are with the European Union there is little more I can say at this juncture about the outcome of the discussions, but I assure him and others that we will continue to work with the EU as a key and important partner, and be the best friend and ally to the EU, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said on a number of occasions.

My Lords, the very first article of the trade and co-operation agreement talks of

“good neighbourliness characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation, respectful of the Parties’ autonomy and sovereignty.”

Could the Minister explain how the Government’s current fence-top position is consistent with this core aspiration of our new and important relationship with the EU?

I agree with the premise and context of the noble Earl’s question, but I assure him that we are currently in discussions for the very reasons he has articulated. The EU is an important partner to the United Kingdom. At the end of the transition period, our intention is to be the best ally and friend to the EU. We will work in that respect, whether on its status here in the UK or on other key issues. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, it will remain an important partner in all respects.

My noble friend has said that he does not wish to pre-empt the negotiations, but I think it will be clear to him from the exchanges so far that not one Member of your Lordships’ House who has spoken so far is not very surprised to find that the status of an ambassador is part of the negotiations. I appreciate the difficult position that my noble friend is in, but may I suggest that this be sorted out as quickly as possible, so that we can live up to the intention of being the best friend and ally?

Does not the Minister agree that it is time now to put aside gesture politics and to focus instead on developing the relations necessary to make a success of, for example, the G7 summit in Cornwall and the climate change summit in Scotland? In both of those, the European Commission will, whether we like it or not, have a major and important role to play.

Let me assure the noble Lord, who speaks with great insight and experience, that we are doing exactly that. We want to focus on the G7 summit and on the other important priorities that lie in front of us, including dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and the rollout of the vaccines, and, equally importantly, our planning for the COP 26 in November in Glasgow.

My Lords, I have the greatest respect for the Minister, but does he understand that he is completely failing to convince the House of the need for any discussions about the status of the EU ambassador in Britain? Should he not be communicating this to the Foreign Secretary—who, although we have been urged many times by the Front Bench to move on from the Brexit debates and arguments, seems incapable of doing so in his search for cheap points that will go down well with his Brexiteer Back-Benchers?

My Lords, I work closely with my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, and, as I said in response to an earlier question, of course I will feed back the sentiments of your Lordships’ House. However, I can speak for my right honourable friend. Over the past year or so I have seen the importance he attaches to our colleagues across the EU and the close working partnerships and friendships he has formed, so I disagree with the noble Lord in both the final element and the premise of his question: that is not the case. We work very closely with the EU collectively, but also with key partners within the EU, most notably Germany and France. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has an important role in leading on those relationships.

May I belatedly—I understand that he has been here for some months—welcome the EU ambassador to the United Kingdom, as I welcome the ambassadors of every EU member state? Obviously, though, there is now scope for duplication, because no one will be quite clear where the lines are delineated between the EU ambassador and the ambassadors of the nation states. Can my noble friend tell me which member states have approached the Foreign Office and said that they wish to reduce their representation in the United Kingdom because of the arrival of the EU ambassador?

My Lords, the EU’s representation and that of EU member states is very much a matter for the European Union and those member states.

My Lords, I follow on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Robathan. We have talked about the importance of sovereign equality in our relations with the European Union, so do we intend to accept that our representation in Brussels should be reduced both in status and in size? As a point of comparison, the United States regards its representation in Brussels as one of its most important; it is also one of its largest. Do we not think that ours should be similar?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. I am sure that he will recognise, from his time as a Minister at what was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the appointment of the new ambassador to the Permanent Mission at the European Union, who is a very capable official and acts at a very senior level. Indeed, he was centrally involved in the discussions on the new agreement that we have reached with our European Union friends.

My Lords, is the European Union a state? And is there any non-state organisation that has an ambassador in the United Kingdom? Does the Commonwealth Secretariat, for example, have an ambassador in London? Finally, can a state be represented by two ambassadors? In other words, if the European Union has an ambassador, do all 27 members of the European Union have to withdraw their ambassadors?

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord has answered his own question, but, for the record, of course the Commonwealth does not have an ambassador. The Secretary-General is present here and the Commonwealth as an international organisation has a presence, but not in the manner of having an ambassador. Nor does any other international organisation have an ambassador to the United Kingdom. However, I stress that decisions about the EU and its representative voice, whether in the UK or elsewhere, are for the European Union—and of course, through various elements of the multilateral sphere, member states are represented, as is the European Union itself.