There is nothing like a break-up to prompt a few rounds of point-scoring and petty one-upmanship. The Brexit divorce process is more giving than most. The UK may be over and out of the bloc, legally at least, but there is always another fight to pick.
This time the row is about the diplomats themselves. Instead of giving the EU’s ambassador to London, Joao Vale de Almeida, full diplomatic status, the UK wants to treat the EU delegation as representatives of an international organisation. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab says, correctly, that the EU is not a nation-state. So what, you might ask?
Without the full protection of the Vienna Convention, diplomats do not benefit from immunity from detention, criminal jurisdiction and taxation. If this sounds like a storm in a teacup, that is because it is. But diplomacy matters, especially between two entities separated by 50 km of Channel tunnel, who have just agreed a free trade deal with each other.
In truth, few should be surprised. A year ago, the UK argued that the European Commission should not be entitled to have an official presence in Northern Ireland after Brexit.
That takes nothing away from what is a supremely petty and shortsighted move. Exactly 142 other countries have given EU ambassadors full diplomatic status, and almost none of them have – or should wish for – a closer relationship with the EU.
As rows go, this one is particularly silly politics. In return, EU foreign ministers, who will discuss the latest stand-off next week, could decide to respond by downgrading the status of the incoming head of the UK’s Mission in Brussels, Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby.
Donald Trump’s administration took the same approach, denying the EU mission in Washington DC full diplomatic status for a year. Even Trump eventually changed his mind.
At the root of this spat lies the fact that Brexiteers do not like or respect the EU, and that, after more than four years of awkward and often ill-tempered negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement and then a new trade deal, there is plenty of bad blood between the two sides.
The UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, liked to refer to the EU as “your organisation” when speaking to his counterpart Michel Barnier.
But that pettiness surely serves no purpose any more. At some point, Brexiteers will have to accept that they have won on all fronts; they won both the referendum and the ‘hard Brexit’ that they craved.
The hauliers and fishermen currently bearing the brunt of the new bureaucratic burdens and struggling to get their products to market are desperate for the two sides to resolve the teething problems at and around the border so they can, literally, move on.
With Brexit done, the challenge should be to make it work. Without diplomacy, however, it won’t.
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Look out for…
- EU foreign affairs ministers meet on Monday to discuss current issues, Russia sanctions
Views are the author’s
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]