British diplomats pride themselves on retaining their sang froid even at the most historic of moments, and so it was with Sir Tim Barrow, Britain’s permanent representative to the European Union, when he left his office on Wednesday morning.
Were it not for the polyglot camera crews chasing him to his official Jaguar demanding to know about the contents of his battered leather satchel, it could have been just another day in the office.
It was 8.45am in London and Sir Tim was departing at his usual time for a routine meeting with his fellow EU ambassadors; but this was no routine day, it was the moment when Britain formally declared its intention to leave the European Union.
As the Prime Minister’s official messenger, Sir Tim was careful to let his boss back in Westminster do the talking, striding impassively to his car where he remained cocooned from further demands for information for the 400-yard drive to the European Council building.
Sir Tim has kept a low profile since coming to Brussels to replace his more loquacious predecessor, Sir Ivan Rogers, and on arrival he let slip only a breezy “morning” as he swept into the bowels of the European Council’s giant new headquarters, popularly known as ‘the egg’.
A flash of crimson from the lining of one of Sir Tim’s impeccable Savile Row suits – for which he is renowned in the diplomatic corps – was perhaps the only concession to his walk-on part in an historic day.
After nine months of speculation about the contents of the Article 50 letter, the world was then forced to wait just a few more hours, while the ambassador sat in his meeting with soon-to-be former colleagues.
In the interim, Twitter filled up with jokes about the perils of letters getting mixed up (think the 2017 Oscars) and questions about why Sir Tim’s briefcase, with its faded official coat of arms, was not manacled to his wrist. Across Europe, the morning newspaper editions also had their say.
France’s Liberation declared that “we miss you already”, emblazoning the message against an English Guardsman’s bearskin; while Die Welt pictured Mrs May alone at sea in a Union flag paper boat, adding it was not too late for Britain to reverse course.
“Ze door is schtill open,” joked the cod-English headline on its front page.
History does not yet relate if Sir Tim handed the precious letter off to a colleague for safekeeping, or kept it under his chair – checking nervously every few seconds with his feet to ensure it was still there – but the ambassador could have been forgiven if at times his mind wandered away from the business in hand.
It was an agonising four hours later – 12.45 in London – that Sir Tim was finally able to deliver the letter into the hands of Donald Tusk, the European Council president.
The moment was recorded only in an awkward still photograph, in which a grim-faced Mr Tusk is seen taking the letter gingerly in two hands, like a bomb that was about to go off.
Sir Tim remained inscrutable as ever behind perfectly trimmed white whiskers.
There was a trace of humour – perhaps a little bitter – in Mr Tusk’s official confirmation of receipt, issued on Twitter while Mrs May was still delivering her statement to the Commons.
“After nine months,” he wrote, “the UK has delivered. #Brexit.”
It was an emotional Mr Tusk who addressed the world some minutes later, expressing genuine sadness that Britain was leaving a Union that was formed a month before his own birth in April 1957.
Mr Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, recalled with passion at last weekend’s Treaty of Rome anniversary celebrations how the EU had delivered security and freedoms that he’d spent half his life fight for while growing up behind the Iron Curtain.
While expressing regret at Britain’s decision to leave, he promised that the EU 27 would remain united during the “difficult” negotiations ahead and defend the interests of that Union.
“There is nothing to win in this process - for both sides - and in essence this is about damage control,” he said.
“Our goal is clear: to minimise the costs for EU citizens, businesses and Member States, and we will do everything in our power”.
“What can I add to this?” he concluded with a shrug, now visibly emotional.
“We already miss you. Thank you and goodbye.”
That was a sentiment echoed to varying degrees across Europe.
Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, said it was a “disappointing” day for Europe while Joseph Muscat, the Maltese prime minister who holds the rotating EU presidency, said that Brexit was a “sad day” and marked "a big leap into the unknown for everyone.”
But it did not take long for the mask to slip and the gulf between the two sides’ expectations about how these negotiations should proceed to emerge.
Within hours Angela Merkel was openly challenging Mrs May’s determination that the UK wants to negotiate a future trade agreement at the same as it agrees the terms of its ‘divorce’, including settling the now-infamous 60bn euro Brexit bill.
"Only when these questions are cleared up can we subsequently - but hopefully soon - talk about our future relationship," said the German Chancellor, clearly linking British concessions on money and EU citizens’ rights as a gateway to a trade deal.
François Hollande, the outgoing French president, said that he believed Brexit would be "painful" for Britain, while Valérie Giscard d'Estaing, the father of the defunct European constitutional treaty, dismissed Brexit as "not a worry" for the eurozone and predicted that Britain will be the "main losers" from the divorce.
It was the kind of talk that prompted Marine Le Pen, the French Front National leader to predict that Europe would try to make the deal “as painful as possible” to deter others from leaving, but added she was confident that Britain would thrive once it had left.
Back in Brussels, with the Brexit negotiations countdown clock now officially ticking, the European Parliament was laying out its own ground-rules for the coming talks.
The Parliament, which must ratify any deal, is already setting itself up as the “bad cop” in the coming talks, and its draft resolution listed its ‘red lines’ for the negotiations, many of which were hard to reconcile with the contents of Mrs May’s letter.
Under the leadership of the Parliament’s Brexit point man, Guy Verhofstadt - a floppy-haired former Belgian prime minister and passionate euro-federalist - the Parliament warned that divorce proceedings must come first, and that British attempts to “go behind our backs” and seek to divide and rule the remaining 27 EU member states would not succeed.
Mrs May had appealed for Europe to consider carefully Britain’s importance to European security, but Mr Verhofstadt declined to say whether this amounted to blackmail.
"I try to be a gentleman, so towards a lady I don't even use or think about the word 'blackmail'," he said.
In the end, all the pledges for a warm and co-operative relationship, could not disguise the determination of Mr Verhofstadt to hold Britain to the letter of the Article 50 agreement.
"That is not a question of revenge, that is not a question of punishment,” he said, “it is the logic of the European Union, of the European treaties, of the European project.”
It is same remorseless, legalistic logic of the EU that ultimately defeated David Cameron in his attempt to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU last year, and, as Wednesday made clear, will require all of Sir Tim Barrow’s diplomatic skills if a deal is to be finessed out of Brussels in the months to come.
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