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30 July, 2006

Our representatives abroad

Wandering around the centres of national capitals, one tends to pass the embassies of other countries.  Naturally, one tends to look at them, considering their architecture and what each says about the resident nation's prominence and attitude to the wider world.

British Embassy, Prague, Czech Republic. ©NRTIn many cases, embassies occupy old palaces or 18th-19th Century office buildings; often, a flag or brass plaque is the only feature distinguishing an embassy from a corporate headquarters or apartment block. Prague springs to mind: In June 2005, I thought certain South-American and Baltic embassies looked particularly anonymous. The French and Italian Embassies were slightly grander, but still, there were no visible guards and one could approach the front doors. The Polish Embassy is a detached building surrounded by a fence, but the gates and the gardens were open to the public. The British Embassy is an exception, a modern vehicle barrier clashing with the older façade. The US Embassy is further out from the centre, so I only saw it from a bus: elegant enough, but behind a large fence.

The Diplomatic Quarter of Berlin is relatively well-known, possibly because many of the embassies were purpose-built afresh after 1945/1990 rather than occupying older, repurposed premises. Unfortunately, I didn't get an opportunity to wander the streets there last week, but I did notice the Scandinavian compound: Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland have combined their embassies into one complex. The surrounding decorative fence/cladding is probably stronger than it looks, but the overall impression is of inclusivity.

Of the postwar Occupying Powers, the Russian Embassy is in Unter den Linden, the main street of the historical city. It's slightly set back from the road behind a walled courtyard, but there are no visible guards. The French Embassy is in a corner of Pariser Platz, diagonally opposite the Brandenburg Gate. A policeman is stationed outside, but until I saw the flag on the building, I thought he was watching over the tourists rather than the embassy.

British Embassy, Berlin, Germany. ©NRTThe British Embassy is in Wilhelmstraße; with the Hotel Adlon, it accounts for one side of an entire block. At each end of this section of the street, at the junctions with Unter den Linden and Behrenstraße, the road is closed by modern-looking retractable bollards, each about the diameter of an oildrum. At the northern end of the street, there's a vehicle checkpoint staffed by at least five police officers; there are two at the other end and two more on the street itself. And this is the adjacent street, not the embassy itself, which is plainly custom-built as a fortress. Look past the 'fun' exterior and you'll notice there are no windows until the third floor, and that the front entrance is behind a 4m high metal gate & reinforced stone wall.

The USA is building a massive new embassy on the corner of Pariser Platz and Ebertstraße, right by the Brandenburg Gate. No doubt it'll be fortified to the same extent as the British one (in the next street – I wonder whether there'll be a common back entrance), but temporarily the US Embassy is in Neustädtische Kirchstraße, behind four emphatically non-retractable concrete roadblocks, a sixties-style vehicle checkpoint and a huge amount of wire. In a city physically divided from 1961 to 1989, the effect is somewhat tasteless.

Shouldn't one be grateful, even proud, that one's home country takes such exceptional and ostentatiously visible care of its premises and people?
Absolutely not. These defences are the direct consequence of the UK butting-into situations where it had, and has, no business, unnecessarily putting the UK's more fundamental interests – the welfare of the British – at risk. I feel profoundly ashamed to be a citizen of a country which feels a need to turn its embassy into an intimidating vault.

Well, I would, if I believed 'my' government actually represented me.

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