It was summer: Brussels was in the grip of a heatwave and Britain was isolated in Europe. The year was 1987 and Margaret Thatcher was in her prime, recalls Lord John Kerr, a former UK ambassador to the European Union.
Fresh from her 1987 election victory and “full of adrenaline”, Thatcher refused to compromise on an EU budget line, blocking the final summit communique approved by 11 other European leaders. “It was June and it was the old Charlemagne building [in Brussels] and the air conditioning broke down and it was a heatwave,” Kerr recalls. “The fact it was hot and uncomfortable and unpleasant contributed to the disastrous outcome.”
If a broken air-conditioning system can leave a subtle mark on the course of history, what does that means for Brexit? Talks between the UK and the 27 EU countries conclude on Thursday, and over the next 575 or so days, Brexit secretary David Davis and his officials will spend hours, days and weeks in a succession of meeting rooms in the EU capital.
In fact, the UK’s Brexit fate will be sealed in two buildings on opposite sides of a traffic-clogged road in Brussels’ EU quarter. The EU briefly considered other buildings for the Brexit negotiations – including the nearby Borschette centre, a sad-looking concrete bunker-style conference centre. But officials soon settled on the Berlaymont, the starfish-shaped headquarters of the European commission, now the base of the EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier.
The building has long generated mixed headlines. Praised for its bold, 1960s modernist architecture, damned for its overrunning, over-budget renovation, it takes its name from the former convent that stood on the site when the neighbourhood was still a sleepy residential district.
The Berlaymont was designed by Belgian architect Lucien de Vestel, who was inspired by the 1958 Unesco secretariat building in Paris. When it was finished, one critic for Présences magazine wrote that the building reflected “both the 20th-century innovative spirit and sheer audacity and brings to mind the astonishing civil engineering arrow at the [Brussels world fair] 1958 exhibition”.
After its renovation in the 1990s, the building’s operational facilities spread out over 14 floors, with offices for 2,700 officials, a 900-seat cafeteria, broadcasting studios, conference rooms and even a Nordic sauna. The style is smooth functionality: vanilla walls, lots of blond wood and neat Ikea-style pot plants. At least the temperature control works better than when Thatcher was one against 11.
On the first day of talks, Davis and his top officials were whisked to the 13th floor for a four-course meal. From this vantage point, they would have had a commanding view of Brussels, from the Atomium twinkling in the distance to the nearby Parc du Cinquantenaire, a formal landscaped park built by Leopold II with proceeds from his brutal plunder of the Belgian Congo.
The other main Brexit venue is across the street from the Berlaymont: the Europa building, the new headquarters for EU leaders nicknamed the “Space Egg” for its distinctive oval-shaped window.
The main leaders’ meeting room is decorated with multicoloured carpets and ceilings, intended to symbolise “the united patchwork of Europe”. It is also smaller than its equivalent in the old summit building, so EU leaders can see each other more easily, without having to rely on screens. The architect, Philippe Samyn, said he wanted to create a “joyful and friendly” building, contrasting the round meeting rooms with “authoritarian” squares and rectangles.
So far, it is not obvious whether the playroom colours will make Brexit talks more “joyful and friendly”. Most EU leaders apparently like the building, although some have joked that it reminds them of a kindergarten. In a typically tart observation, the Lithuanian president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, said the “screaming colours” were to “keep everyone awake”. That might not be a bad thing for EU summits that can drag on until the small hours of the morning. Germany’s Angela Merkel, in her understated style, said that “the atmosphere in the new room was different from in the past”.
In autumn 2018, when talks are expected to reach a critical point, Britain’s Brexit fate will likely be sealed inside this building. But the British prime minister is not expected to negotiate directly with EU leaders. Instead, EU leaders will hear Barnier’s verdict on his talks with the British and reach their own decisions – without the British PM in the room.
The British leader will remain a regular guest in the building, though, until the UK leaves the EU at the end of March 2019. Theresa May is already familiar with the routine: the glad-handing at the start of each meeting, followed by talks on an array of subjects, from high foreign policy strategy to choosing a new European council president. A three-course working lunch or dinner is never far away.
Brexit means Britain will be excluded from these gatherings after 2019. Even today, the mood in Brussels is already very different from the days Kerr remembers, when Brussels was “a British city”. “Everyone listened to the Brits,” he says. “It was wonderful. We were playing at home those days.”
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