A European Union flag, with a hole cut in the middle. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The German news service Deutsche Welle has revealed that the State Department downgraded the diplomatic status of the European Union’s delegation to the United States at some point in the second half of 2018, without actually informing the European Union. The E.U. delegation in Washington had previously been recognized as the equivalent to a national embassy. The head of the delegation was listed as an ambassador by the Office of the Chief of Protocol. Now, the State Department’s list of the diplomatic order of precedence lists the European Union under “heads of delegation,” along with the head of delegation of the African Union.

This isn’t just a minor matter of diplomatic protocol. The Trump administration is using the downgrading to communicate its understanding of the world and of the European Union’s place in it.

The Trump administration does not like the European Union

The downgrade and the lack of courtesy shown by not informing the European Union in advance fits well with the Trump administration’s hostility to the E.U. as a multilateral institution. Just last month in Brussels, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lambasted the European Union (and other institutions such as the United Nations and the African Union). His speech was tellingly titled “Restoring the Role of the Nation-State in the Liberal International Order.”

The U.S. move is a blow to the E.U.’s attempts to boost its diplomatic standing in the world. The European Union is a strange creature in international affairs. It is obviously not a nation, but it is not merely an international organization. This reflects the consensus among European Union member states, who themselves can’t agree as to whether the European Union’s in-between status is permanent, a step toward more “statehood” or an aberration to be reversed as soon as possible. Certainly Brexit, along with the outright opposition of Hungary, Poland and Italy to many E.U. principles and policies, shows there is sympathy for asserting the “role of the nation-state” within Europe itself. But the opposing tendency, which wants to increase European integration so the European Union becomes a little more nation-like, is also important, whether it is expressed boldly by the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron or more quietly, by officials working for the European Union.

The European Union’s diplomatic status is key to its identity

The 2009 Lisbon Treaty created a new European Union diplomatic service, the European External Action Service, headed up by a high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. In the treaty, the member states also granted “legal personality” to the European Union. This means the European Union can enter into agreements with states and international organizations. Before this, only the European Community “pillar” of the European Union — that is, the part responsible for negotiating and concluding trade agreements — could enter into international agreements. With international legal personality and a new diplomatic service, the European Union comes close to demanding other states treat it as a special actor, and almost as an equal.

Although it is seemingly an arcane matter of diplomatic protocol, the precedence among ambassadors in the host country is symbolically important. It signals acceptance of the fundamental legal principle of the equality of nations. Ambassadors are thus ranked by order of their accreditation, where the diplomat who has been in post as ambassador the longest is at the top of the list. For the European External Action Service, two issues have been paramount: achieving the recognition that the head of the European Union delegation is an “ambassador,” and having the E.U. ambassador listed among the states and not as the head of delegation of an international organization. Initially, the European Union was content with the host country putting the European Union last among the ambassadors of states, even if the E.U. ambassador had been in the post for some time.

However, recently, the EEAS quietly shifted its stance, indicating that its preference is for the E.U. ambassador to be treated like other national ambassadors and listed according to seniority. E.U. delegations have done this by not requesting a waiver of seniority.

The problem for the European Union is that achieving a shift in status requires the host country to play ball. External recognition matters: Just ask Taiwan or Kosovo, both of which have found it hard to get other countries to recognize them as nations. The European Union has struggled to convince other nations that its “in-between-ness” should be granted special status. In 2010, for example, it failed in an attempt to obtain a special enhanced observer status in the United Nations General Assembly, succeeding only in 2011 by accepting that other international organizations could request the same status, too.

The European Union has succeeded in upgrading its diplomatic status in several of its important partner countries: The head of the E.U. delegation is listed as an ambassador, or head of diplomatic mission, along with national ambassadors in Australia, Canada, South Africa and India. In the first three of those cases, where the order of precedence is publicly available, the European Union is listed in the usual order applied to all ambassadors, by date of accreditation. In 2016, this was also the case in the United States, as the departing Obama administration granted the European Union’s wish. The Trump administration has backtracked on this change.

This is a blow to the European Union’s ambitions for recognition. It will surely feed into the internal “sovereigntist” narrative popular in an increasing number of E.U. member states. The European Union will seek to prevent any further backsliding and hope that other countries do not follow suit.

Karen E. Smith is a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science and director of the European Foreign Policy Unit.