FILE - A U.S. and European Union flags are pictured during the visit of Vice President Mike Pence to European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Feb. 20, 2017.
FILE - A U.S. and European Union flags are pictured during the visit of Vice President Mike Pence to European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Feb. 20, 2017.

WASHINGTON - The United States downgraded the diplomatic status of the European Union’s delegation in Washington last year without formally announcing the change or telling Brussels, according to EU officials.

They say it only came to light when the bloc’s envoy in the U.S. capital, Irish diplomat David O’Sullivan, discovered he wasn’t being invited to certain events and was invited to the funeral of former U.S. President Herbert Walker Bush after national ambassadors, despite his seniority.

Diplomacy is saturated with symbolism and double meanings - and the downgrade, which now has been temporarily reversed - has angered EU officials, who fear the move was meant as a snub. They’ve requested an explanation for the downgrade, according to EU spokesperson Maja Kocijancic.

Motives elusive

Politicians and analysts on both sides of the Atlantic are struggling, though, to understand the motives for the demotion, debating whether the move was meant as a rebuff by an administration that has clashed with Brussels over trade and defense issues or whether it was the result of a bureaucratic mix-up.

“The demotion of the EU representative was reversed following bilateral talks in December,” an EU official told reporters Tuesday in Brussels.

President Donald Trump has been a vocal supporter of Britain’s exit from the EU - describing himself on the campaign trail as Mr. Brexit and frequently lambasting the bloc for running trade surpluses with America.

He has embraced anti-EU figures, including Nigel Farage, a leading Brexiter and onetime leader of the UK Independence party, whom he met after his election win ahead of meeting any EU leaders or Britain’s prime minister. The president tweeted that he thought Farage should be made Britain’s ambassador to the U.S. “Many people would like to see @Nigel_Farage represent Great Britain as their Ambassador to the United States. He would do a great job!” Trump said.

Because of the partial government shutdown in Washington, the State Department is not responding to media requests about the protocol change.

European Union Commissioner for Competition Margre
FILE - European Union Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager speaks during a news conference at the EU Delegation in Washington, Sept. 19, 2016.

‘Not notified of any change’

Previously, the U.S. treated the EU delegation and its ambassador as representatives of a country would be, say European officials. But the change, which is thought to have been made last October or November, downgraded the diplomatic status of the EU delegation to that of representing an international organization, a much lower pegging with potential impact regarding access to the administration.

“We understand that there was a recent change in the way the diplomatic precedence list is implemented by the United States' Protocol,” said Kocijancic in a statement. “We are discussing with the relevant services in the administration possible implications for the EU delegation in Washington. We were not notified of any change. We expect the diplomatic practice established some years ago to be observed.”

The status change was first reported by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. “We don't exactly know when they did it, because they conveniently forgot to notify us,” an EU official told the broadcaster. “This is clearly not simply a protocol issue, but this is something that has a very obvious political motive,” he said.

Other EU diplomats in the U.S. capital contacted by VOA expressed the same view. A senior European diplomat maintained the relegation also may have been motivated by a wish to reverse a decision taken by the previous Obama administration, which upgraded the status of the delegation of the 28-nation bloc in 2016.

“If this wasn’t meant as a snub then the timing is odd,” he said. “Normally protocol tweaks are made in the first few months of a new administration, not two years in,” he said. “That aside, even if they didn’t intend it as a rebuff, they must have realized that’s how it would be interpreted. It is in line with what we see as an anti-EU stance by the Trump administration, which also dislikes multilateral organizations.”

‘Petty Trump move’

In a speech in Brussels in December, as the diplomatic downgrade was being discussed between U.S. and EU officials, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Trump’s “America First” policy was reshaping the post-Second World War system by recognizing the importance of sovereign states over multilateral institutions. He criticized “bureaucrats” for believing multilateralism is “an end in itself,” and cast doubt on the EU’s commitment to its citizens. That drew a sharp rebuke from the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm.

Several high-profile European politicians reacted to the news of the downgrade Tuesday with frustration. “Soap opera politics: US downgrades EU mission in DC in a petty Trump move,” tweeted Carl Bildt of the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former Swedish prime minister.

Euro-skeptics cheered. “That should take the EU superstate down a peg or two!” tweeted the pro-Brexit Leave campaign.

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom Tuesday heads to Washington for a round of trade talks with U.S. counterpart Robert Lighthizer. Trade tensions between Brussels and Washington have flared since Trump imposed tariffs on European aluminum and steel imports.

The U.S. president has threatened to impose tariffs on the European cars, too.