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EU group blasts 'harmful' White House approach to trans-Atlantic relations

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David O'Sullivan, who heads the EU Mission to Washington, D.C., speaks in Brussels in February 2014.
David O'Sullivan, who heads the EU Mission to Washington, D.C., speaks in Brussels in February 2014.
Yves Logghe

A European Union legislative group has sent a letter of protest to members of the U.S. Congress blasting "the increasingly harmful approach from the White House" to relations across the Atlantic.

The letter came after news reports revealed that the State Department had quietly downgraded the status of the EU's Mission to the U.S., making it an international organization rather than a national delegation. The EU's ambassador in Washington, David O'Sullivan, was not notified of the change in status, but he did notice that he had not been invited to certain affairs in recent weeks, the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports.

It became apparent at the state funeral of the late President George H.W. Bush in December 2018. Prior to the change, O'Sullivan would have been among the first 20 or 30 ambassadors to be called up, in line with his seniority as a diplomat serving since 2014. DW reports he was called up last.

"This is no way to treat partners," the letter notes. "Such moves play into the hands of rival global powers and can only lead to greater fragmentation rather than much needed increased cooperation."

The letter was signed by European Parliament members Christian Ehler of Germany, Jeppe Kofod of Denmark and Marietje Schaake of the Netherlands. They are the chair and two vice chairs, respectively, of the parliament's Delegation for Relations with the United States of America.

"We've seen a series of very, very confrontational and frankly insulting ... approaches from the Trump administration," Schaake tells NPR. "And now on top of that, the status of the EU delegation in Washington has suddenly been downgraded without the EU even being informed. ... That really puts the EU last in line, behind all other countries. And I think it is absolutely necessary that the new Congress speaks out against this."

Schaake says she has written to Congress on subjects such as net neutrality, but this is the first time the three delegation leaders have issued a joint appeal to U.S. lawmakers. She says the letter was sent to newly minted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as well as every other member of Congress.

Pelosi's office did not respond to NPR's request for an interview.

The U.S. State Department also did not respond to requests for comment.

Relations between the EU and the U.S. have been strained during President Trump's term in office.

Brussels has bristled over U.S. tariffs on European exports, slapping retaliatory duties on American motorcycles, bourbon and other goods. The White House has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, which the EU remains committed to, and has announced that the U.S. plans to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. At a NATO summit in July 2018, Trump berated European countries for not spending more on their military defense — although the U.S. recently participated in the largest war games with NATO since the Cold War, as NPR has reported. Some European countries are trying to bolster ties with the United States. In October, Germany announced a yearlong initiative called Wunderbar Together that will feature about 1,000 events in all 50 U.S. states. In launching the program, Germany appealed to the heavens — summoning a greeting from the first German commander of the International Space Station, Alexander Gerst, who said, "A strong relationship between both sides of the Atlantic is fundamental for successful cooperation — be it on Earth or in space."

Schaake of the European Parliament says she sees the relationship between her bloc and the U.S. as "a relationship ending badly."

"The EU still believes we should stay together but the U.S. partner is, you know, maybe looking around elsewhere," she says. "I wish the Trump administration could see that a strong trans-Atlantic relationship is in the American self-interest."

O'Sullivan has not publicly commented on his downgraded status. His Twitter account still refers to him as the EU's ambassador to the United States, though technically the State Department now considers him the head of a delegation.

Recently, O'Sullivan tweeted about how the U.S. is the largest supplier of soybeans to the EU. And he pointed to a report that his bloc is stable: "Happy to note we are very much alive and kicking in 2019!"  Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.