In a Change of Tone, U.S. Restores E.U.’s Diplomatic Status

BRUSSELS — As diplomatic spats go, it was a spring shower in a teapot, not even a minor tempest. But European feelings were badly bruised last year when the Trump administration downgraded the diplomatic status of the European Union’s delegation to the United States without making a formal announcement or even informing the bloc about the change.

The permanent reversal of that decision was announced on Monday, with the ambassador of the European Union to the United States now again considered to be equivalent to an ambassador from a country, not just to an envoy from an international organization.

The announcement was made with some fanfare by the American ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, whom European diplomats credit with pushing hard for the fix. In a statement, Mr. Sondland called the bloc “a uniquely important organization, and one of America’s most valuable partners in ensuring global security and prosperity.”

President Trump has called the European Union “a foe” in economic competition with the United States, but Mr. Sondland said that “Europe’s security and success are inextricably linked to that of the United States, and this level of engagement and cooperation should be recognized appropriately in all settings.”

It is a change in tone for Mr. Sondland, a hotelier and businessman from Washington State who has regularly criticized the European Union as being “out of touch.” He has faulted the bloc for being obsessed with regulation and for not being eager enough to meet Mr. Trump’s demands to lower the roughly $150 billion trade deficit in goods it has with the United States (though that figure ignores the American advantage in services).

In an interview with Politico Europe in December, Mr. Sondland said of Brussels: “There is clearly an effort to maintain the status quo, and we now have to recognize that the relationship and all of the good will that has been built up since the Marshall Plan doesn’t seem to count when it comes to getting a little consideration. So we are going to have to do what we have to do.”

A month ago, Mr. Sondland said that the European Commission was “like a factory churning out regulation after regulation after regulation. Even regulating things that don’t exist today on the theory that someday, someone is going to get hurt somewhere.” He also warned that Washington would escalate a trade dispute — “forced to do a tit-for-tat” — if Brussels did not heed the Trump administration’s demands.

Privately, Mr. Sondland is even more caustic, and European officials tend to raise their eyes when asked about his negotiating style, which they consider to be brash. But some of those same officials were also quick to praise Mr. Sondland for going to bat for the bloc in the protocol battle and for understanding that the change had been needlessly offensive.

The downgrade became evident at the December funeral of President George Bush, when the name of the European Union ambassador, David O’Sullivan, was not called in the expected order. The names of diplomats who had gathered in Washington to pay their respects were spoken, as is custom, from the longest-serving ambassador to the newest, but Mr. O’Sullivan was called last.

The demotion that was apparent at the funeral came a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a blistering speech in Brussels, in which he questioned the value of multinational organizations like the United Nations and the European Union. Mr. Pompeo asked whether the European Union was “ensuring that the interests of countries and their citizens are placed before those of bureaucrats.”

There followed quiet complaints through diplomatic channels from the European Union, and in January the downgrade was described as having been “temporarily reversed.” The announcement of the permanent reinstatement came on Monday in a statement to welcome Mr. O’Sullivan’s replacement, Stavros Lambrinidis.

Christian Ehler, chairman of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with the United States, said that he welcomed the move but “would like to highlight that the downgrading was a mistake in the first place that has now been corrected.”

Mr. Ehler said that he hoped that the upgrade “will restore trust and will ensure the continuation of a close and constructive trans-Atlantic cooperation.”

In addition to Mr. Trump’s regular criticism of NATO, the United States and the European Union have been at odds over the Iran nuclear deal. Mr. Trump has pulled out of that pact, while European allies have been seeking to preserve it. Washington and Brussels are also at loggerheads over climate change, after Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris accord.

The two sides have also been engaged in sometimes vicious negotiations about trade and about American tariffs on European steel.

The Trump administration is also threatening new “national security” tariffs on imported cars, in an effort to reduce the American trade deficit with the European Union, a threat that hangs over current negotiations with Brussels and that is aimed foremost at Germany. And Washington has sharply criticized Berlin for supporting the Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.