On Monday, two months after news broke that Washington had downgraded the diplomatic status of the European Union mission to the United States, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union announced that the United States has restored the diplomatic status.
The downgrade was largely taken as a sign that the Trump administration saw the European Union as another pesky multilateral institution and not a partner organization. The reversal is “a gesture of goodwill” as a new E.U. ambassador arrives, said Benjamin Haddad, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative. Still, Haddad said, “It was a completely unnecessary denigrating move in the first place."
Experts agree that, while the move will be seen as a welcome course correction, it cannot undue the damage from a diplomatic downgrade Europeans believe should not have happened in the first place.
“Although Europeans will welcome the restoration of his diplomatic status and move forward, this unfortunate incident has reinforced the diminishing trust in the transatlantic relationship,” Amanda Sloat, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe and former deputy assistant secretary for Southern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean Affairs at the State Department in the Obama administration, wrote in an email.
“Reversing the decision matters in that it restores the E.U. mission to its rightful place, which is that of a bilateral partner on par with all other European allies,” echoed Rachel Rizzo, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security focused on the transatlantic relationship.
The Obama administration in September 2016 upgraded the status of the E.U. ambassador to the United States to be on par with that of the head of any bilateral mission. The Trump administration reversed that decision, though it did not inform the European Union. E.U. officials determined the downgrade had happened in October or November of last year; news of it broke in January. The news outraged both E.U. officials and Democratic lawmakers.
“The news two months ago that the E.U. Ambassador’s status would be downgraded was very much perceived by the Europeans as an intentional slur by the Trump administration,” Erik Brattberg, director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in an email. “It came on top of repeated negative statements about the E.U. by the president and other administration officials. It also seemed to reinforce the notion that the Trump administration viewed the E.U. as just another multilateral organization.”
But then, on Monday, Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, said that “effective immediately, the Department of State will again recognize the European Union’s representation in Washington as equivalent to that of a bilateral mission in the Diplomatic Corps Order of Precedence.”
“The European Union is a uniquely important organization and one of America’s most valuable partners in ensuring global security and prosperity,” Sondland said.
“The decision to reinstall the EU ambassador’s status is likely a way for the administration to correct an error — and certainly a response to the strong reaction from the EU side,” Brattberg wrote.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment as to why the reversal was announced now, two months after news of the downgrade broke. But the reversal coincides with the arrival of a new E.U. ambassador to the United States — Stavros Lambrinidis, who is replacing David O’Sullivan.
Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for the European External Action Service, said Monday, “We are pleased that the United States took the decision to revert to usual practice.”
O’Sullivan, in a final round table discussion with the media last month, openly questioned whether certain actions taken by the Trump administration toward the European Union — including trade tariffs — were the most conducive to building an alliance. The Trump administration has put steel and aluminum tariffs on the European Union, and Trump has threatened to introduce tariffs on cars and car parts if the European Union does not start negotiating a trade deal.
“There are moments when we feel, this is not maybe the best way to build an alliance,” O’Sullivan said.