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How Brexit dealt a hammer blow to diplomatic relations

A French fishing boat with a protest sign opposing new fishing licenses in St Helier, Jersey - Credit: Getty Images

It has not even been five months since the end of the Brexit transition period and there have been armed patrol vessels in the Channel.

The sad thing is: this is only the latest stage in a development that began with the Brexit referendum and saw a significant decline in Britain’s role on the diplomatic stage.

In 2017, the UK lost (for the first time in its history) its seat on the International Court of Justice – and even then, commentators noted the connection between the pending Brexit and the loss of international status.

Last year, the Northern Ireland secretary blithely announced in parliament that, yes, the Internal Market Act would ‘break international law’. This year, the UK unilaterally decided to change its duties under the Northern Ireland Protocol, resulting in legal action by the EU; the foreign secretary seemed to encourage trade with countries with poor human rights records, and the government defeated a motion that would have obliged it to reconsider trade deals with countries found to commit genocide.

‘Global Britain’ increasingly appears to be led by people who no longer care about Britain’s reputation in the world and consider international law slightly less important than rules on uncouth language in a finishing school.

International law, of course, is so much more than the Brexit deal; but Brexit had an impact on it.

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations offers an example. It is the ‘basic law’ of diplomats around the world, and a popular treaty at that: it has 192 parties, including all EU States and the UK.

Given Boris Johnson’s new passion for armed patrol vessels, one would be forgiven for thinking that he has never heard of it.

That is a pity – some of the rules of the convention, which recently celebrated its 60th birthday, would have been handy in the Jersey crisis.

In particular, the part which talks about negotiation and the promotion of friendly relations.

Another diplomatic function it mentions is that of the protection of the nationals of the sending State, and that one played a role even at the time of the Brexit vote.

After the referendum, Polish citizens found cards with abusive slogans in their letterboxes; racist crimes were on the rise. In that situation, the Polish Ambassador, Witold Sobków, quite rightly stepped in to defend his fellow nationals.

It is an ugly feature of the whole Brexit saga that he had to do so in the first place – and an early indication of where Britain’s reputation in the world was heading.

When people who are abroad need the help of their own States, it is often for different reasons: they may be tourists who have been mugged, foreign workers who lost their passports and so on.

Usually, it is consuls that deal with that – colleagues of diplomats who tend to work with issues that have fewer political implications. But that, too, is affected by Brexit: for EU citizens, this type of protection is even more extensive.

If, for instance, a Latvian exchange student is in trouble in a country where Latvia is not represented, she can go to the diplomats or consuls of any of the other 26 EU Member States and ask for help – and they have to give it to her, as if she were their own national.

That is something that applies thanks to the EU treaties – it is a huge sign of solidarity that few organisations offer to their members. But you would have been hard-pressed to find it mentioned during the referendum campaign.

One of the most interesting developments in diplomacy is the rise of new actors.

Today, it is not only States that send diplomats abroad: the EU, for example, has its own diplomatic arm – the European External Action Service (EEAS). And EU diplomacy is massive: there are 143 EU delegations around the world, with more than 3,000 people working for it. Brexit left its traces here as well: if you want to work for the EEAS, you usually have to be a EU citizen. So an increasing (and fascinating) job market was lost when the UK left the bloc.

EEAS diplomats are usually well protected: the EU takes the immunity of the Vienna Convention as the standard it seeks for its own missions around the world.

That is why it mattered so much when the Johnson government, at the beginning of the year, decided to deny the EU head of delegation in London the status of full ambassador. It was a petty move (and forced the government into yet another embarrassing U-turn this month).

At the time, it was difficult to see it as anything other than a deliberate snub – and as another sign that Britain, by and by, was ceasing to behave like a serious player on the international stage.

But nature abhors a vacuum. While the UK government appears to leave the field of true diplomacy, others are joining it – including the two nations of the kingdom that voted against Brexit.

The Northern Ireland Executive had an office in Brussels for a long time now, but there are now also Northern Ireland bureaux in China and in Washington DC.

The Scottish government lists, among its international offices, representations in Beijing, Berlin, Brussels, Dublin, Ottawa, Paris and Washington DC (and, with a bit of Scottish cheek, London).

But even Wales is making its international presence felt: the Welsh government decided to set up its own Erasmus programme after the UK government withdrew from it. Scotland, too, is working on education agreements with Flanders (Belgium) and Rhineland Palatinate (Germany).

Highly publicised visits of members of the devolved administrations abroad – such as those by Nicola Sturgeon to the EU and EU Member States – are no longer a rarity. It really is no surprise.

Diplomatic relations have always offered opportunities for those willing to take an active part. And after the ham-fisted performance of the British side, this comes as a breath of fresh air.

With more and more representatives arriving from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, nobody must be surprised – least of all Boris Johnson – if our neighbours prefer them and their commitment to a peaceful Europe to those who prattle about Empire 2.0 and counter diplomatic crises with armed patrol vessels.

Dr Paul Behrens is author of Diplomatic Interference and the Law (Hart Publishing 2016) and editor of Diplomatic Law in a New Millennium (OUP 2017). He teaches diplomatic law at the University of Edinburgh.

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