The EU ambassador to the U.S. at the center of a protocol kerfuffle with the Trump administration is due to leave his post next month.
The ambassador, David O’Sullivan, a former secretary-general of the European Commission, will be replaced by Stavros Lambrinidis, a former Greek foreign minister who currently serves as the EU’s special representative for human rights, as part of the EU’s regular rotation of diplomats.
With transatlantic relations at a low point, amid rancorous disputes with Donald Trump and his administration over trade and other issues, EU officials are struggling to understand a recent downgrade of O’Sullivan’s status in Washington. Since late 2016, O’Sullivan had been ranked in seniority among national ambassadors, rather than included with the envoys from international organizations, who fall into a secondary category on the protocol list.
Dining with my friend Stavros Lambrinidis, EU Special Representative for Human Rights and the upcoming EU Ambassador to the United States. Stavros and I will do some great work together to advance the interests of our governments. pic.twitter.com/h1LgeAd7fF
— Ambassador Sondland (@USAmbEU) September 13, 2018
That change was implemented by the Obama administration but reversed, without notice, by Trump’s State Department in late October. It’s unclear if the change, which was first evident last month at the funeral of former President George H. W. Bush, is intentional or accidental.
EU officials have said their efforts to sort out the situation have been hindered by the government shutdown in Washington, but that there was at least one event after the Bush funeral at which O’Sullivan’s seniority appeared to have been restored.
The EU said it had not been alerted of the change, but there is also no formal mechanism for communicating such adjustments.
EU officials said the status change would not hinder the ambassador’s work in any substantive way, but they expect the U.S. to honor the previously granted upgrade. Officials said the EU had enjoyed a notably higher level of diplomatic treatment worldwide since the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force in 2009, expanding the Commission’s policymaking role in foreign affairs but also in trade and many other areas.
The arrival of Lambrinidis in Washington — he starts on March 1 — means that the seniority status of the EU ambassador would have reset in any event to the lowest level among national ambassadors, though the Obama change would still have placed him above ambassadors from international organizations. The change in status for O’Sullivan, who has served in Washington since 2014, was first reported by Deutsche Welle.
“We remain natural partners, natural friends, and our friendship with the U.S. is here to stay” — Maja Kocijančič, spokeswoman for Federica Mogherini
“We are discussing with the relevant services in the administration possible implications for the EU delegation in Washington,” said Maja Kocijančič, spokeswoman for the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini. “We were not notified of any change. We expect the diplomatic practice established some years ago to be observed.”
The protocol flap is far from the most serious dispute between Brussels and Washington at the moment, nor the most egregious breach of diplomatic courtesy and norms by Trump. His administration started out its relations with the EU on an awkward footing by inquiring which EU country would be next after Britain to quit the bloc.
In addition to repeatedly berating European allies over military spending, Trump has lashed out frequently at his European counterparts, including criticizing U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s handling of Brexit and German Chancellor Angela Merkel over her immigration policies and also Germany’s stance on the construction of a new gas pipeline by Gazprom, the Russian energy behemoth.
More recently, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech in Brussels in which he lambasted the EU and other international organizations, at one point asking: “Is the EU ensuring that the interests of countries and their citizens are placed before those of bureaucrats here in Brussels?”
That was followed up by a scathing interview by the U.S. ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, who told POLITICO that the EU is “out of touch.” He accused the bloc of stalling trade negotiations with the U.S., which were undertaken after Trump initiated a tariff war last year by slapping duties on European steel and aluminum.
Kocijančič, the EU spokeswoman, stressed that the bloc’s relationship with Washington was too important to be shaken by any minor dispute or misunderstanding.
“Even with an evolving transatlantic relationship as is the case today, our partnership on the many issues where our interests continue to converge is vital not just for Europeans, not just for Americans, but for people and countries around the world,” she said. “This is why we are convinced that whatever policy disagreement we may have with the U.S. administration, we remain natural partners, natural friends, and our friendship with the U.S. is here to stay.