- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2005

LONDON — The United States is engaged in a diplomatic spat with the city of London over its refusal to pay for its embassy staff to drive on the British capital’s streets — and other nations are threatening to follow suit.

At the heart of the row is London’s so-called “congestion charge,” a daily $14-per-car toll the city levies for using the roads in central London.

The fee was introduced nearly three years ago to try to reduce the city’s chronic traffic jams. But the United States says it is a tax that it no longer intends to pay.

A furious London Mayor Ken Livingstone has warned that American diplomats are running the risk of having their cars clamped or towed away, at a cost of hundreds of dollars.

A top official at the U.S. Embassy in London promptly responded with his own warning to the mayor not to “interfere with diplomats carrying out their business.”

“We think it’s perfectly clear that this is a tax,” Deputy Chief of Mission David Johnson told the Times of London newspaper. “We have ceased paying it.”

An embassy spokeswoman said: “It is the view of the U.S. government that all direct taxes on diplomats and diplomatic operations, including this one, are prohibited by the Geneva Conventions.”

The specific regulation cited is the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1961, which guarantees diplomatic immunity and exempts diplomats from paying national, regional and local taxes.

But Mr. Livingstone insists the congestion charge is not a tax. “It is a charge for a service,” a spokesman for his office said.

“All staff at the American Embassy should pay the congestion charge, in the same way as British officials pay road tolls in the United States,” the spokesman said. “To refuse to do so in either case is to break the law of the host country.”

Some countries — including Canada, Switzerland, Japan, Australia, Spain and Sweden — are paying up without any fuss. But at least one other country, Germany, thinks the Americans are on the right track.

“The legal department of the home office in Berlin determined that this charge is, by nature, a tax,” a German Embassy spokesman said.

The Times of London reported that other European embassies could follow suit after European Union diplomats met in the summer to discuss sidestepping the charge.

Fines for not paying the toll can reach $262.50 per car per day for payments due for more than 28 days. Transport for London, which runs the program for the city government, says the U.S. Embassy has a fleet of 100 cars in the capital.

That means the Americans could be racking up fines at a rate of more than $26,000 a day. The U.S. Embassy concedes it has not paid a cent since July 1.

Transport for London says it can pass details of unpaid fines to the British Foreign Office, to add to its annual list of embassies with outstanding parking- and congestion-charge penalties.

Last year’s list of named and shamed embassies was topped by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Angola. Unless London’s mayor gets his way, the United States and Germany could become league leaders next year.

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