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Washington downgrades EU mission to US

Michael Knigge Washington
January 8, 2019

The Trump administration has downgraded the diplomatic status of the European Union's delegation to the United States, an EU official has confirmed to DW. The demotion happened at the end of last year without notice.

U.S. President Donald Trump reacts as he walks with the President of the European Council Donald Tusk
Image: Reuters/E. Vidal

UPDATE: EU lawmakers decry downgrading of mission in US

The unannounced move by the US State Department, which has not previously been reported, downgraded the EU delegation's diplomatic status in Washington from member state to international organization.

"We don't exactly know when they did it, because they conveniently forgot to notify us," an EU official who is familiar with the matter told DW in an interview.

"I can confirm that this has not been well received in Brussels," the person said, adding that the issue and an official EU response was still being discussed. 

After the delegation noticed that the EU's Washington ambassador had not been invited to certain events late last year, officials organizing the state funeral for President George H.W. Bush provided final confirmation to EU diplomats that the status of the representation had in fact been downgraded. Diplomats believe the downgrade must have been implemented in late October or early November.  

At the high-profile event on December 5, as diplomats gathered in Washington to pay their respects, O'Sullivan was not called up in the usual chronological order from the longest-serving to the newest ambassador, said the EU official. "But he was called up as the last person."

Prior to the demotion, O'Sullivan — who has served as the EU's ambassador to Washington since 2014 — would have been ranked among the first 20 or 30 ambassadors of the more than 150 foreign representatives dispatched to the US capital. 

Read more: My Europe: Rekindle the trans-Atlantic love story! 

Europe needs 'strategic patience' with Trump: ex-NATO envoy


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'Forgot to notify us'

A Washington-based diplomat of an EU member state also confirmed the downgrade and denounced the move.

"This is clearly not simply a protocol issue, but this is something that has a very obvious political motive," the person said. The diplomat added that the negative view of the EU mission downgrade was shared by the majority of member states.

After discovering the downgrade, EU diplomats in Washington reached out to the State Department, which is responsible for diplomatic affairs, for clarification. "They have told us that they forgot to notify us and that this is a decision they have taken because that is apparently what the chief of protocol thinks is the proper thing to do," the person said.

The EU official said the bloc ambassador's status in Washington was upgraded to the level of a nation-state ambassador in September 2016, after a lengthy and intensive process by the State Department under former President Barack Obama.

EU-US trade relationship

The European Union and the United States are each other's largest export markets. Here's a look at what the two regions export and import — and which industries could be affected in a trade war.

general.image.copyright_prefix Imago/Hoch Zwei Stock/Angerer

More than a trillion euros in trade

The European Union is the US' largest export market, accounting for about one-fifth of all US exports. Similarly, one-fifth of EU exports go to the United States. EU-US trade in goods and services was €1,069.3 billion in 2017. The EU imported €256.2 billion in goods from the US, and exported €375.8 billion.

general.image.copyright_prefix Imago/Hoch Zwei Stock/Angerer

EU trade surplus

The main exports and imports between the EU and US fall into the categories of machinery and vehicles, chemicals and other manufactured goods. Combined, they accounted for 89 percent of EU exports and imports with the US in 2017. In all three categories, as well as food and drink, the EU had a trade surplus. The US had a trade surplus in raw materials and energy.

general.image.copyright_prefix Reuters

Cars, machinery top exports

At €167 billion, machinery and vehicles were the largest EU export category to the US, accounting for 44.4 percent of goods exports. The €111.5 billion in machinery and transport equipment was the largest EU import from the US, accounting for 43.6 percent of imports.

general.image.copyright_prefix picture-alliance/U. Baumgarten

Small part of trade pie

At the end of May 2018, the Trump administration imposed a 25 percent tariff on EU steel and 10 percent tariff on aluminum. Steel and aluminum exports to the United States were worth €3.58 billion in 2017.

general.image.copyright_prefix Reuters/Y. Herman

Retaliatory tariffs

In response, the European Union developed a list of products it may subject to retaliatory tariffs. These include typical American products like peanut butter, bourbon whiskey, Harley Davidson motorcycles, jeans and orange juice. The exports targeted by the EU are worth about €2.8 billion annually, according to EU officials.

general.image.copyright_prefix Shaun Dunphy / CC BY-SA 2.0

Services include travel, education

For services, the EU imports amounted to €219.3 billion and exports €218 billion. The top services were in professional and management services, intellectual property, travel and education. About a third of EU-US trade consists of intra-company transfers.

general.image.copyright_prefix picture-alliance/dpa

Anti-EU stance

"For us, they have made this decision once and it was a well-thought-through decision — and now they sort of put it down again with a pen stroke," the EU official said.

The person added that while it's not uncommon for a new administration to rethink protocol classifications, it's unusual that such a downgrade happens after a new administration has been in office for nearly two years. It's also rare that a diplomatic mission is not informed by the host country about such a decision ahead of time, and in writing.

"I have big difficulties to see that this has anything to do with a new administration or a new protocol, because time-wise it's really very far removed," the official said.

The diplomatic downgrade of the EU's mission in Washington appears to be in line with what is widely being perceived as an anti-EU stance by the Trump administration.

Trump was an avid supporter of Britain's exit from the European Union during his presidential campaign, and as president has repeatedly lashed out at the European Union on issues such as trade and defense.

Read more: Donald Trump's man in Brussels extends a hand to the EU

Pompeo has been a vocal supporter of Trump's 'America First' policyImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. J. Terrill

State Department stands by its decision

In a major foreign policy speech in Brussels in early December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Trump, a self-declared nationalist, and urged European countries to reassert their national sovereignty vis-a-vis the EU.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, in an effort to try to reverse the protocol downgrade, EU diplomats contacted the State Department but were ultimately told just before the Christmas holiday that the department stood by its decision, the EU official said. "But we have not received anything written."

Asked for comment, the State Department did not respond on the issue, citing limited operations due to the government shutdown. "Due to the lapse in appropriations, the Press Office will be operating on a reduced status. Communications with the media will be limited to events and issues involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, or those determined to be essential to national security," the State Department said in an email.


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