It’s springtime in London, and things are just what you would expect. Spring slowly peeps out after a hard winter, shoots showing on the many plane trees, early flowers in the gardens that dot the city, and the Sun no longer a strange visitor. The restaurants are full – it’s hard to get a table.
The shops are full of Londoners – permanent and temporary – from all parts of the world giving a boost to the retail economy. The baristas are all from Eastern Europe. The Uber drivers are invariably foreign as well. The banks, the companies, the offices have a healthy sprinkling of other nationalities. On the streets, you hear Arabic spoken next to Polish, Spanish next to Chinese, Hindi next to Russian, and of course English in every accent other than that of England.
In other words, nothing has changed.
In a Brussels conference room, an elderly woman sat, alone with her thoughts. Her immaculate grey hair, normally beautifully coiffed, was looking a little worse for wear thanks to having her hands run over through the gruelling day. She had her papers in her briefcase and a few spread before her. She read some of them in order to occupy her mind and project calm to the few assistants sitting across her. Appearances had to be maintained.
But her mind was far from calm. She had staked her all over the last three years to do what she thought was right. Not very imaginative and not capable of personal transformation, she was true to herself and to her basic nature, as went about the complicated task of the last three years. Perhaps in her mind she knew she was being asked to do the impossible. She was aware of her personal preferences and prejudices, and yet, was driven by a sense of loyalty to those she owed her current position to, to protect those interests and try to square the circle.
As the sounds left the empty building, she waited, not far from another conference room, much larger than the one she was in. It was a very different scene. Twenty-seven serious men and women, each surrounded by aides and analysts, debated furiously into the night. The President of the Council and the Head of the Parliament were there along with other officials. The discussions were heated at times. While most of the the twenty seven first began in their own languages and relied on the instant translation services, that was soon abandoned. Every one switched to English – the common language they all knew but sometimes would not admit to.
Some of these men headed countries with populations of a couple of million. Some of them headed large, serious nations. The twice-defeated Germany, headed by the matronly former physics professor, who combined sharp political instinct with the kindliness of someone who has known hard times. France, with a youngish rake at its helm. Italy with its dysfunctional head of government presiding over a state heading firmly towards the right. A grey haired man, heading Hungary, a former liberal now turned fascist. And so on.
In the smaller room, she waited to hear from these important men and women. Her small island nation, now at the mercy of the decisions of these men and women. How had it come to this, she must have pondered?
The thoughts of the men and women in the other room were anything but charitable, but it was not personal. It was pure business. Their job was to protect the interests of each of the member states, and collectively that of the Union. To preserve the idea of the Union, they had to be tough towards the member who wants to leave. At the same time, too vindictive an attitude would also not help. If any, it could end up fanning similar right-wing flames in other parts. They also had to ensure that there was no abrupt dropping out, no sudden exit. That could harm the Union as well.
And so they debated and argued. The relatively sane voices of the German Chancellor and that of the President of the Union moderated the sometimes heated exchanges. They, in particular, understood what it meant not to enjoy the freedoms we take for granted, and hence were appalled at its irresponsible use.
And finally, when they had a position ready, they opened the door and summoned the lady waiting in the other room. She came in, was welcomed warmly and with a note of apology by the Chancellor and the President for the time it took to complete their deliberations.
Then they told her what had been decided. They told her, we do not have any faith in any of your assurances that the Withdrawal Agreement, negotiated over two years and which adhere to your own announced “red lines”, will ever pass in Parliament, let alone in one week. And we will not open negotiations on the Agreement. We will also not let you leave the Union on your own terms, without any agreement. Rather, we give you six months. In six months, try and work out an agreement or an approach with your country and come back to us.
In the meantime, they said, on May 23, we ask you to ensure your country participates in the elections to the Union Parliament. Until you leave, you are a member of the Union and hence would ask you to behave like one. However, since we no longer believe in the bona fides of those who may end up representing your country in our institutions, we ask you to provide a guarantee of good behaviour in our institutions, until to leave.
She sat and heard all of this in stunned silence. The Chancellor and the President lapsed into silence and waited for her to respond. In her stilted English and her grandmotherly way, the Chancellor placed her hand on the lady and gently asked “Theresa, is all this clear to you? Would you want us to go through with it again?”. No reply. The President gently placed a letter, with all these terms, in front of her.
In her mind, she recalled that infamous day in November 1956, when her predecessor Sir Anthony Eden was told by his Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold Macmillan, that the Americans had forced Britain to end the Suez Canal takeover by the simple expedient of telling the IMF that Britain should not get any loans to shore up the pound. Facing imminent and heavy economic pressure, Eden ordered an immediate and humiliating retreat. It clarified to the world that Britain was indeed now a client state of the United States. It also made the French realise that their European future could not be based on British power but on an accomodation with Germany, thus giving rise to the European Union.
She remembered reading of the humiliation Sir Anthony suffered. It was end of Empire, end of Great Britain as a first rate military power.
As she gathered up her papers, she wondered. Is this our new Suez? We retreated from Empire to Continent. And now from Continent to island nation. Little England as it was before Elizabeth I.
She left the room, back home, back to her red lines, back to her deals, and back to her Agreement.
But in her heart she knew.