Perceived ‘Demotion’ of Status of EU Ambassador to US Upsets Europeans

By James Carstensen | January 9, 2019 | 7:24 PM EST

E.U. Ambassador to the United States David O’Sullivan takes part in an Atlantic Council event on April 11, 2018. (Photo: E.U. Delegation to the United States)

Berlin ( – European Union officials say the Trump administration, without informing the bloc, recently “demoted” the E.U. ambassador to Washington, effectively downgrading his status by treating him as a diplomat representing an international organization rather than a nation state.

The move appears to be a reversal of a relatively recent decision. An E.U. official speaking on condition of anonymity said that in September 2016, after a review process carried out by the Obama State Department, the ambassador’s placing in the department’s “Diplomatic Corps Order of Precedence” had changed.

Whereas before he had been listed near the bottom, under “international organizations,” that 2016 change meant that – like the ambassadors of nation states – his placing in the list was based on length of service in Washington.

Now, however, the situation appears to have reverted to the previous status quo.

Under President Trump the U.S.-E.U. relationship has undergone strains, with his stated disdain for multilateral organizations clashing against E.U. efforts to upgrade the 28-member bloc’s status and clout in the international arena.

The E.U. became aware of the perceived “demotion” of E.U. ambassador David O’Sullivan during the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush last month, when O’Sullivan’s name was called out not in the customary order of precedence, but at the end of the list of diplomats in attendance, the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle first reported Tuesday.

The E.U. official confirmed that the envoy’s placing on the list had been changed, and that the E.U. had not been notified at the time.

However, the official said that did not signal that the status of the E.U. delegation itself had been downgraded.

“It is not correct to say that there has been a change of the E.U. delegation's diplomatic status in Washington from ‘member state’ to ‘international organization,’” the official said.

Queries sent to the State Department brought no response, other than an emailed reply citing the government shutdown.

The State Department’s current Diplomatic Corps Order of Precedence, dated October 30, 2018, begins with a list of 173 ambassadors of sovereign states, topped by the envoy from Palau (serving in the U.S. since 1997) and running through the Spanish ambassador (in place since September 2018.)

O’Sullivan has been accredited in Washington since November 2014, so would have expected to be in or around 27th place on that list of 173 envoys.

Instead, his name appears at the bottom of the list, under “heads of delegation,” along with the head of the African Union delegation. (Archived earlier versions of the list show the E.U. and A.U. heads of delegation included in the list of national ambassadors.)

In a statement, E.U. spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said the E.U. was “not notified of any change.”

“We expect the diplomatic practice established some years ago to be observed,” she said.

Kocijancic pointed out that “the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty [in 2009] substantially enhanced the E.U.’s status in external relations and this is amply recognized by most of the countries around the world.”

The Lisbon Treaty was an initiative to reform and strengthen the E.U., seeking to give the bloc a more united and bigger voice on the international stage. Among other things it created full-time posts approximating those of president and foreign minister.

Under the treaty, member-states committed to a common foreign and security policy, as reflected in posts like that of E.U. ambassador to the Washington.


Despite the largely ceremonial nature of the Diplomatic Corps Order of Precedence list, the move has upset some in Brussels, and the European Parliament’s delegation for U.S. relations condemned the decision on Wednesday.

In a letter to members of the U.S. Congress, the E.P. delegation criticized what it called the “increasingly harmful approach from the White House when it comes to Transatlantic relations.”

“Such moves play into the hands of rival global powers and can only lead to greater fragmentation rather than much needed increased cooperation,” the E.P. delegation said.

Elise Carlson-Rainer, a doctoral program faculty member at the American Public University’s School of Security and Global Studies, said the implications went beyond symbolism and were significant for international relations.

“The E.U. is one of the U.S.’s strongest allies in security cooperation, trade, and broader alliances,” she said. “In venues across the globe, American diplomats often seek out European partners, and vice versa, to carry out common resolutions or diplomatic work.”

“This downgrade has no benefits to the American public,” Carlson-Rainer added. “It will only hurt America’s strategic relationship with the E.U.”

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