A curious tale of two embassies

At Westminster Hall in London, on the very spot where England's last absolute monarch was convicted of torture and tyranny, the world's most absolute dictator presumes to lecture our present leaders on the sins of the democratic society that has evolved in the centuries since the overthrow of Charles I. We are paying for this privilege, because the monarch of the Holy See is here on a state visit from 16-19 September. But the Holy See is a "Santa Claus" state - no matter how many believe in it, it does not exist.

The Vatican, as any tourist can tell, is not a state at all: it is a palace, surrounded by gardens, about the size of a large golf course. In law (the 1933 Montevideo Convention), a state must have a people - and there are no Vaticanians. In this Roman enclave of celibates, no citizen is born other than by accident. It has no "territory" - another statehood requirement - other than the 108 acres conveyed inviolably to it by Mussolini in 1929 as part of a sordid deal with the pro-fascist Pius XI to destroy democracy in Italy. This is described as the "Lateran Treaty" although it is not, as a matter of law, a treaty (an agreement between sovereign states) at all. It is a deal between Italy and its Church, and obviously has no legal effect on the UK, which has never been a party to it. Nonetheless, it is on this dubious document that the Vatican today pins its claim to statehood. Its most recent sovereignty statement to the United Nations reads:

"The Holy See exercises its sovereignty over the territory of the Vatican City State, established in 1929 to ensure the Holy See's absolute and evident independence and sovereignty for the accomplishment of its worldwide mission, including all actions relating to international relations, cf: Lateran treaty, preamble and articles 2-3."

Separate powers

So when Henry Bellingham MP, a junior minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), stated in a letter to the New Statesman last week: "It is not the case that Britain recognises the Vatican because of the Lateran Treaty, nor could it be," he spoke with forked tongue. The UK resumed diplomatic relations in 1914 with the Holy See as an international entity, but not as a state. It then had no territory because the Risorgimento had extinguished the papal states in 1870, and even the Italian courts have recognised that the Vatican could make no claim again to statehood until its deal with Mussolini in 1929, because until then it possessed not a square inch of land.

So Bellingham is playing with words: the Lateran "treaty" is crucial to recognition of the Holy See as a state, and to the government's invitation to the Pope as a head of state, for the simple reason that it is the only basis on which the Holy See claims to be a state. But the Foreign Office appears unaware, either of its history or of its terms. When I made a Freedom of Information (FoI) request for documents relating to the expensive decision to keep separate UK embassies for the Vatican and for Italy, a Foreign Office official wrote:

"the Lateran pact guaranteed the full sovereign independence of the Vatican City in international law . . . under the terms of this treaty, it is not possible for ambassadors to Italy to be representative simultaneously to the Holy See - hence the need to maintain two separate embassies in Rome . . . under the Lateran pact it is impossible for any state to merge its embassies to Italy and the Holy See . . . they are in separate buildings . . . in accordance with the Lateran Pacts, the two ambassadors' residences remain located in separate parts of Rome."

This is all nonsense - there is nothing at all in the Lateran Treaty that requires this separation. Importantly, Bellingham now admits that this confident assertion by the Foreign Office was "a mistake". Instead, he tells us that the FCO deferred to "the practice of the Holy See". Vatican "practice" has no meaning or effect in law, and by kowtowing to it, the FCO has caused the taxpayer to fund an entirely unnecessary embassy and ambassadorial residence in Rome.

Curious bluff

The matter was raised in 2004, after the UK relinquished its luxurious villa near the Appian Way which had served as its embassy to the Holy See. It proposed to save money on rent, security, gardeners and assorted flunkies by relocating it to our embassy in Italy. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, then secretary of state to Pope John Paul II, protested that this would be a breach of the Lateran Treaty. Incredibly, the UK capitulated. It is astonishing that the FCO should have been such a pushover on this matter, conceding a claim that was wrong in law and based on a treaty to which the UK was not a party.

Although the Foreign Office website claims that the embassy to the Vatican conducts a valuable "dialogue" on human rights, it refuses to divulge what is said. Another FoI request has been refused, on the grounds that disclosure "would be likely to prejudice effective relations between the UK and the Holy See". Decoded, this probably means that exposure would cause embarrassment to the FCO - perhaps by revealing that there has been no dialogue at all on such important issues as Vatican responsibility for the rape of thousands of children, or for promoting homophobia by denouncing gay people as "evil", or for objecting to condom use to prevent HIV/Aids in Latin America and Africa.

If there is to be such dialogue - and for any western government that takes human rights seriously, there certainly should be - there is no reason why it cannot go on within the concrete walls of the UK embassy to Italy. William Hague should call the Curia's bluff and merge the two UK embassies in Rome.

Geoffrey Robertson, QC is the author of “The Case of the Pope" (Penguin Special, £5.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis

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It's time for the government to think again about Hinkley Point

The government's new nuclear power station is a white elephant that we simply don't need.

Today I will welcome Denis Baupin, Vice President of the French Assembly, to Hinkley.

His own choice to come and visit the site of the proposed new nuclear power station reflects his strong desire to prevent the UK disappearing up a dangerous dark alley in terms of energy policy. It also takes place as France takes a totally different path, with the French government recently adopting a law which will reduce nuclear energy in the country.

Greens have opposed Hinkley ever since the government announced its nuclear strategy. Hinkley, with its state aid and an agreed strike price of £92.50 per megawatt, has always been financially and legally suspect but it is now reaching the level of farce. So much so that George Osborne is required to be economical with the truth in front of a House of Lords committee because he cannot find anything honest to say about why this is a good deal for the British people.

Mr Baupin and I will join hundreds of protestors – and a white elephant – to stand in solidarity against this terrible project. The demonstration is taking place under a banner of the triple risks of Hinkley. 

First, there are the safety and technological risks. It is clear that the Pressurised Water nuclear reactor (EPR) – the design proposed for Hinkley C – simply does not work. France’s nuclear safety watchdog has found multiple malfunctioning valves that could cause meltdown, in a similar scenario to the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the US.  The steel reactor vessel, which houses the plant’s nuclear fuel and confines its radioactivity, was also found to have serious anomalies that increase the risk of it cracking. Apart from the obvious safety risks, the problems experienced by the EPR reactors being built at Flammanvile in France and Olkiluoto in Finland have pushed the projects years behind schedule.

Secondly, Hinkley poses risks to our energy security. Hinkley is supposed to produce 7% of the UK's energy. But we now know there will be no electricity from the new nuclear plant until at least 2023. This makes power blackouts over the next decade increasingly likely and the only way to avoid them is to rapidly invest in renewable energy, particularly onshore wind. Earlier this week Bloomberg produced a report showing that onshore wind is now the cheapest way to generate electricity in both the UK and Germany. But instead of supporting onshore wind this government is undermining it by attacking subsidies to renewables and destroying jobs in the sector. 

Thirdly, there is the risk of Chinese finance. In a globalised world we are expected to consider the option of allowing foreign companies and governments to control our essential infrastructure. But it is clear that in bequeathing our infrastructure we lose the political control that strengthens our security. The Chinese companies who will be part of the deal are part owned by the Chinese government and therefore controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. What a toppy-turvy world globalisation has created, where our Conservative British government is inviting the Chinese Communist party to control our energy infrastructure. It also seems that China National Nuclear Company is responsible for the manufacture of Chinese nuclear weapons.

Of course it is the Chinese people who suffer most, being at the hands of an oppressive government and uncontrolled companies which show little respect for employment rights or environmental standards. By offering money to such companies from British consumers through their energy bills our government is forcing us to collude in the low human rights and environmental standards seen in China.  

Research I commissioned earlier this year concluded we can transform the South West, not with nuclear, but with renewables. We can generate 100 per cent of our energy needs from renewables within the next 20-30 years and create 122,000 new quality jobs and boost the regional economy by over £4bn a year.

The white elephant of Hinkley looks increasingly shaky on its feet. Only the government’s deeply risky ideological crusade against renewables and in favour of nuclear keeps it standing. It’s time for it to fall and for communities in the South West to create in its place a renewable energy revolution, which will lead to our own Western Powerhouse. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.