Vatican Unhappy Over British Move to Downgrade Embassy

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has protested to the British government after it emerged that the British Foreign Office was planning to downgrade an ambassadorial residence, in contravention of a treaty between to the two states.

The British government had been planning to move from the Villa Drusiana, the residence of Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See, to an annex of the Villa Wolkonsky, the current residence of Britain’s ambassador to Italy.

But the plans were unacceptable to the Vatican, which had already reluctantly allowed the offices of the British Embassy to the Holy See to be located within the same compound as the British Embassy to Rome on reasons of security. The only other state permitted to combine both premises on this basis is Israel.

The dispute has unsettled diplomats accredited to the Holy See.

“It is deeply, deeply disturbing and embarrassing,” said one European ambassador. “Britain’s actions have opened a can of worms as other countries have noticed they have two embassies in Rome and are looking at whether they can also make savings. “

The proposals were drawn up last summer, but Vatican officials only learned about the government’s plans in December. Under the 1929 Lateran Treaty between Italy and Vatican City, the Vatican has sovereign status and is entitled to foreign missions separate from Italy. The Vatican has closely guarded its sovereignty after losing the territory of the Papal States to Italy at the end of the 19th century.

Church sources say Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, have made it clear they would under no circumstances allow the Vatican’s sovereign status to be further undermined by Britain’s actions. The Vatican fears that other states might follow suit in a bid to save money.

The Vatican today has diplomatic relations with 174 countries. Many of these states reduce the costs of their diplomatic representation by having a diplomat accredited to the Holy See who also serves as ambassador to another nearby country such as Switzerland or Germany, but not Italy.

Because of Vatican protests, the British government has now shelved its initial plan. “Two missions will remain entirely separate, and Britain’s embassy to the Holy See will be clearly identified as a separate mission,” said a Foreign Office spokesman, adding that the location of the residence is still under consideration but “it will not be at the Villa Wolkonsky.”

No-Frills Diplomacy

Questions remain over the British embassy, however. Francis Campbell, Britain’s new ambassador to the Holy See and the first Catholic to hold the post since the Reformation, arrived in Rome shortly before Christmas on a low-cost airline on a ticket he had to purchase out of his own pocket.

Campbell is also working with a reduced staff since his office premises were moved. Not only is the existing diplomatic residence to be given up, but Campbell’s domestic staff have been dismissed, he has no personal protection or car, and he is forced to turn up at Vatican functions in a taxi or even on the commuter bus. Britain’s ambassador to Italy, on the other hand, is provided with an armor-plated car and a motorcade.

Foreign Office officials insist the changes to the embassy are “for security reasons.” They also deny the British government is cutting costs or, as some have speculated, would like to shut down the mission.

“There is no question of closing or downgrading the embassy — the embassy is a very important part of our network,” said the spokesman.

However, the Villa Drusiana, which is a discreet and well-protected 19th-century villa, is now expected to be given up for a modest and exposed two-bedroom apartment on a main street in the center of Rome — a significant disadvantage to the British ambassador to the Holy See.

The Villa Drusiana was regarded as an effective venue for diplomatic and religious meetings, and was large enough to accommodate overnight guests. During Pope John Paul II’s funeral last year, Prince Charles and the two leaders of Britain’s main opposition parties were all able to stay there at the same time.

“Who will have to share the sofa-bed next time?” joked one Rome priest.

Ambassador Campbell, a former adviser on Europe to Prime Minister Tony Blair, recently defended the closure of the villa on the grounds that garden parties, which were sometimes held there, were out of date.

The Vatican is known to be deeply disappointed at the British government’s handling of the issue, but has declined to make an official comment. The matter has now been referred to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee of the British House of commons, where it will be scrutinized by a cross-party panel of Members of Parliament.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.