1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Downgrade of EU ambassador to US draws rebukes

Michael Knigge Washington
January 17, 2019

There was no about-face in the US government after DW broke news that the EU ambassador's status had been downgraded. But one expert has said lawmakers' responses show the trans-Atlantic network still operates — a bit.

EU, US flags
Image: Getty Images/T. Charlier

The Trump administration's recent downgrading of the EU ambassador's status without prior notice, first reported by Deutsche Welle, has led to parliamentary action on both sides of the Atlantic.

In a strongly worded letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, 27 congressional Democrats denounced the diplomatic downgrade. "Disturbingly, this step, which appears to have taken place late last year, occurred without congressional consultation or apparent notification to the European Union," the lawmakers wrote in a letter published this week. 

Led by the new chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Representative Eliot Engel, the group slammed the unannounced demotion. "Both the substance of this decision and the undiplomatic way in which it was carried out needlessly denigrate trans-Atlantic relations."  

Screenshot of letter to Pompeo
Excerpt of letter by Democratic lawmakers to Secretary of State Mike PompeoImage: Democratic Party

'Strengthen allies'

In the four-page letter, US lawmakers demand answers by January 30 to four specific questions about the downgrade, among them why the decision was made, why Congress was not informed, and how it was reviewed and approved within the Trump administration.

"We ought to support and strengthen our allies, not turn them into foes," the letter concludes. "Insulting them for no apparent reason does not typically encourage them to take a warmer view of the United States."

The missive echoes the sentiment expressed in a letter by members of the European Parliament. Addressed to members of the US Congress and published one day after the downgrade became public, the letter by the European Parliament's 58-member Delegation for Relations With the United States slammed the White House's "increasingly harmful approach" to trans-Atlantic relations and urged Congress to help "strengthen and not undermine each other."

The MEPs criticized the demotion of the EU's ambassador to the United States, David O'Sullivan, saying neither the ambassador nor the bloc's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, had been "formally notified of this change" in advance. "This is no way to treat partners," they wrote.

The group's vice chairperson, Dutch Liberal Marietje Schaake, told DW: "I hope that members of the new Congress will take the time to reflect on the impact of the Trump administration's confrontations with Europe, the changing role of the United States in the world, and that they will feel empowered to do something about it."

Network still active

As lawmakers voiced their protest in the US and EU, Jeffrey Anderson, a professor at Georgetown University's BMW Center for German and European Studies, told DW that he found it "reassuring that the broader trans-Atlantic network is still operative at some level."

But Anderson, who called the downgrade "yet another gratuitous, petty slap at the idea of European unity," expressed little hope that the move could be reversed.   

"No, not really," he said. "This administration has a really hard time admitting mistakes."

The downgrade "remains in place," an EU official who is familiar with the matter told DW on Thursday. The official dismissed reports of a possible and quick reversal of the downgrade by the US after the original story was published. The official said those reports might have been triggered by the fact that the ambassador was invited to a State Department holiday function.

Screenshot Order of precedence
Nothing has changed on State Department Order of PrecedenceImage: US-State Department

But being invited to such an event did not undo the diplomatic downgrade, the official added.      

"He is still there with the African Union," the official said, referring to the EU ambassador's official placement on the State Department's Order of Precedence list, which ranks ambassadors according to their official tenure in Washington.

On the current list, which is published on the State Department's website, the EU ambassador is grouped in a section designated for international organizations alongside the African Union's representative. Prior to the downgrade, he was listed among nation-states.  

The State Department responded to a request for comment with an automated email referencing "the lapse in US government appropriations" and advising that assistance could only be provided for urgent matters "involving excepted functions."