Nothing warms the cockles of the Indian traveller’s heart—and indeed reminds him of the closely knit global village that we inhabit today—quite like spending an entire day at a Schengen visa application office.

Oh how we love the minimal office furniture, the dystopian lighting, the orderly numbered token system, the whimsical documentation requirements, the thrilling photograph regulations and, most of all, the thoughtful yet criminal charges for on-site photocopying and printing that help to filter out the useless ‘khakhra-carrying H&M buyers’ from the ‘High Networth Juicy Couturiers’.

And the conversations I have had in some of these offices...

“Why do you have no surname in your passport?"

“Let us just say that my father does not a have a natural talent for filling forms."

“What is your surname sir?"

“I have no surname. Just two first names."

“Sorry the embassy will not accept this. We have to enter a surname."

“Ok... How about Oxlade-Chamberlain? Or Walton-Rothschild?"

“It doesn’t work like that..."

But this is the really sad thing: It didn’t have to be this way. If it wasn’t for incessant petulance on the part of a European political figure, things today could have been very different indeed.

Let me explain.

Since November last year, Tony Judt’s excellent book Postwar has been a constant companion. Every few days, I read a few pages of this excellent history of post-WW II Europe. And then I ruminate over both the style and substance of his writing. It is a very good book that is extremely counter-intuitive in parts. I highly recommend it.

During a recent dip into Postwar, I came across the early history of the European Union that was very interesting.

So the highly condensed story goes like this. After WW II, countries in Europe began to wonder if they could better work together economically, if not politically. In 1949, Jean Monnet of the French Planning Office came to London and suggested an Anglo-French economic union. The British rejected the idea, but politely. Britain had little enthusiasm for a union with continental Europe.

There were a few reasons for this. Firstly Britain, then, carried on far more trade with the Commonwealth than it did with Europe. Secondly, it didn’t want the Continentals to strain its relationship with America. And finally, Britain didn’t want to do anything that compromised its sovereignty in its own matters.

There was also another factor: many British politicians felt that there were too many fissures within continental Europe to allow such a union to succeed. Negotiations went back and forth for around a decade. But by around 1956, much to the chagrin of the British, it became clear that a handful of European nations were on course to actually form this union.

Britain was going to be left out. And now it wanted in. Some policymakers in London began to wonder if there was a way to balance British ties to Europe without jeopardizing ties with the Commonwealth. (Keep in mind that at the time Britain still enjoyed preferential trade terms with the ex-colonies.)

In 1956, in the House of Commons, the government announced something called Plan G. According to Plan G, instead of a political or economic union as desired by the French and the Germans, most of western Europe would be turned into a free trade area. And in addition, preferential trade terms would also be extended to the Commonwealth so as to help these countries, including India, send their output, mostly agricultural produce, into this pan-European market. With Plan G, Britain hoped, it could remain central to both Europe and the Commonwealth.

At the same time as Plan G, two other outlandish ideas were also raised. Frank Heinlein writes about both in his 2002 book British Government Policy and Decolonization 1945-1963: Scrutinising the Official Mind.

In October 1956, there was a proposal that France become a member of the Commonwealth along with a plan for common citizenship. Then the Foreign Office in London had a more audacious plan: why not bring all of Europe into the Commonwealth? Thereby creating a mega-block of buyers and sellers of goods, all closely tied with Britain.

None of these plans found any favour, largely because of one famously querulous man: Charles de Gaulle. Despite numerous attempts, De Gaulle refused to let the British join any European economic union. Thus, in March 1957, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany signed the Treaty of Rome, creating a European Economic Community (EEC).

It was only in 1973, after De Gaulle’s death, that Britain was finally admitted into the EEC. By then British trade with the Commonwealth had plunged and there was no need to bring them along.

What if Plan G had succeeded? What if De Gaulle had been less petulant? What if Europe and the Commonwealth had actually gone ahead with a free-trade agreement? How would that have helped or hindered Indian trade, exports and economy? And, most importantly, could India have become a part of the Schengen region? Or, at least, Kerala?

Please send me your comments in a self-addressed envelope. Envelopes are available at Counter 14 for 1,300 each.

Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs.

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