The nomination of an EU ambassador to the UK is a potent symbol of the shift in Britain’s statusby Rupert Joy / January 15, 2020 / Leave a comment
The announcement that João Vale de Almeida is to become the European Union’s first ambassador to London is a powerful reminder that, as we brush the sleep from our eyes on Saturday 1st February, Brexit will—finally—mean Brexit.
The EU does not appoint ambassadors to its member states. The 28—soon to be 27—countries that make up the Union constitute its “homeland” and share (in theory at least) a common foreign and security policy. Instead, the European Commission has representative offices in each member state, which perform more administrative functions, communicating information about EU institutions and organising visits. For the UK, all that will change on 1st February. Since the Lisbon Treaty, EU relations with countries outside the Union have been managed by the European External Action Service, a kind of foreign ministry, with a global network of diplomatic delegations led by ambassadors, sharing many of the characteristics of national embassies.
The nomination of an EU ambassador to London is thus a potent political symbol of the shift in Britain’s status. As Vale de Almeida arrives to take up his new post, the UK will become a third country, albeit a rather important one, and join what the EU likes to call its “neighbourhood.” He will present his diplomatic credentials to the Queen and be accredited to the Court of St James in the same way as any other foreign ambassador. For Europeans, the UK will officially become abroad. In a similar way, the UK’s permanent representation to the EU, known in British diplomatic jargon as UKRep, will reportedly change its name post-Brexit to the “UK mission to the EU,” to mark the change of its diplomatic status.
Vale de Almeida, who is Portuguese, was an obvious choice for the role. A journalist by background, he has served in a number of key positions in Brussels, including as head of cabinet to the former commission president José Manuel Barroso and EU director general for external relations. He has spent the past eight years in two key roles abroad, as EU ambassador first to the US in Washington and then to the UN in New York. Colleagues who have worked with Vale de Almeida describe him as calm and unflappable, a natural alliance-builder with a pragmatist’s instinct for identifying win-wins. He is a talented communicator, capable of explaining complex issues in easily understood terms. Vale de Almeida knows the UK well and is a keen follower of the English Premier League. David O’Sullivan, who succeeded him twice, first as DG for external relations and later as EU ambassador to the US, sees him as an excellent choice. “He’s very experienced, thoughtful and measured. He knows the commission inside out and has worked closely with British diplomats.”
The precise role that the new ambassador will play is less clear, because Brexit has created a unique situation. The EU has plenty of experience from the enlargement process of “downgrading” delegations in accession states to representative offices, as those countries joined the Union; it has hitherto never had to negotiate a looser partnership and “upgrade” a representative office to a full diplomatic delegation in a former member state. It is unprecedented for an EU ambassador to be tasked with facilitating divergence from, rather than convergence with, the accumulated body of EU rights and obligations. Success, in the short term at least, is therefore likely to mean “minimising the inevitable disruption” that this separation entails, as O’Sullivan puts it.
The complexity of the Brexit process will require extensive direct contacts between London and Brussels, with Michel Barnier’s team coordinating negotiations. But Vale de Almeida will have an important role to play in building bridges in London during a challenging and formative period in UK-EU relations that will lay the foundations for a post-Brexit partnership. To add value, he will need to build a network of interlocutors in London, relaying insights on UK thinking to Brussels and vice-versa. His skills as a communicator should be an asset in countering the Mark Francois school of populist obfuscation about the EU that has so often gone unchallenged in parts of the British media. Myth-busting outreach with parliament, business, civil society, universities, think tanks and the media will no doubt be among his priorities.
It may well fall to Vale de Almeida to try to inject more realism behind the scenes into UK expectations for a trade deal. He is likely to have his work cut out helping to find creative ways of managing the self-inflicted constraints that Boris Johnson’s rhetoric has imposed on prospects for concluding an acceptable trade agreement by the end of 2020.As ambassador to the US, he launched the ill-fated Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations, shelved since the 2016 election of President Trump. Not the most auspicious of precedents. Another challenge will be to identify mutually acceptable ways of keeping the UK close to the EU on foreign and security policy. At a time when the EU fears becoming a marginal player in a world dominated by the US and China, Ursula von der Leyen’s declared ambition to lead a “geopolitical” commission will depend in part on maintaining a close partnership with the UK, already under US pressure to “realign its foreign policy away from Brussels.”
Rupert Joy is an international consultant. He served as a British diplomat for many years in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. He was EU ambassador to Morocco from 2013-17