LONDON — As Britain mourns the death of its longest-serving monarch, frantic preparations are already underway in London for what is shaping up to be one of the greatest diplomatic occasions of the century.
Hundreds of current and former heads of state and government will join dozens of other dignitaries who will arrive in Britain next week for the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, who died on Thursday after 70 years on the throne.
Leaders such as US President Joe Biden, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have already confirmed they will attend the funeral, which Buckingham Palace announced on Saturday would will take place on September 19 at 11 a.m. at Westminster Abbey.
The historic church, which seats 2,000, has been the setting for Queen Elizabeth’s wedding to Prince Philip in 1947, and all but two British coronations since 1066.
Japan’s Emperor Naruhito – who could travel alongside Empress Masako and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and French President Emmanuel Macron, among many others, are also likely to attend the funeral.
Spain is likely to be represented by King Felipe VI, who has had blood ties to the British royal family since the 19th century. Members of other European royal families, including from Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, will also travel.
“It would not be surprising if all the crowned heads of state from Europe came, as well as heads of state and government from other countries,” said a former cabinet minister who was in government during another big funeral. of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 2013.
“It will be a huge diplomatic event,” they added. “Her Majesty’s last contribution to the welfare of our country is to provide an excuse for a grand diplomatic meeting.”
“It will be a funeral like no other, or few others,” agreed John Kampfner, director of the UK in the World initiative at the Chatham House think tank. “There have been big state funerals before – of US presidents, Nelson Mandela and others. But quite simply the Queen was the most famous person in the world, and therefore I think there will be an attendance list that will be unprecedented.
The most notable – albeit unsurprising – absence will be that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, after the Kremlin said his presence was not an option. In chatty diplomatic circles, just as important as who comes is simply who gets an invitation, with embassy officials eager to find out if Chinese President Xi Jinping will be offered the chance to attend.
Work 24 hours a day
In the meantime, diplomats are worried about the scale of what is about to unfold.
Funeral preparations represent a colossal logistical, security and diplomatic task, with tens of thousands of people expected to travel to London in the coming days. Foreign embassies are already handling hundreds of calls from individuals asking if it would be possible to land in the capital on the day of the funeral and rushing to book flights and accommodation.
“It will be a huge challenge in so many ways: protocol, security, sensitivities,” said Ioannis Raptakis, Greece’s ambassador to the UK, who agreed it would be of a similar scale to Nelson Mandela’s state funeral in 2013. or at the UN COP26 on climate change. Glasgow summit last year, in terms of the number of world leaders likely to attend.
“Almost all countries will make an effort to be represented. But I have complete confidence in the British protocol experts – they have experience with the recent organization of COP26, which was like a rehearsal.
Others are more worried. “We are very worried about the logistics,” said a diplomat, pointing to a perceived lack of organization at the G7 summit in Cornwall last year.
The envoys are in desperate need of more guidance from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, particularly regarding the service’s protocol, which will determine the all-important question of whether Heads of State or of government may attend accompanied by spouses and other senior government officials. . Some have complained that they have only received a brief note so far. On occasions like these, everyone wants to bring a plus-one.
On the morning of the funeral itself, the Queen’s coffin will be carried in a procession to Westminster Abbey from the 900-year-old Westminster Hall, where the public will have had several days to pay their respects. The nation will observe a two-minute silence.
After the hour-long funeral, a grand ceremonial procession will accompany the coffin to nearby Hyde Park, where it will be transferred from the arms cart to the state hearse. The coffin will then travel 20 miles west of central London, to Windsor Castle.
After a burial service at St George’s Chapel in Windsor, the coffin will eventually be lowered into the Royal Vault on the castle grounds, alongside that of the Queen’s late husband, Prince Philip, who died in April 2021.
More than just a funeral
Great funerals are strange times for diplomats, combining solemn periods of mourning with inevitable opportunities for bilateral and multilateral encounters.
The last state funeral in the UK took place in 1965, following the death of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Dignitaries from an unprecedented 112 countries – including Dwight Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle and Queen Elizabeth herself – attended the service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was watched on TV and radio by around 350 million people around the world. Although the funeral took place at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union sent its Deputy Prime Minister to attend.
Diplomacy around such events is undoubtedly possible. In 1979, immediately after the funeral of Louis Mountbatten – a relative of the Queen murdered by the IRA – Thatcher held a summit with his Irish counterpart John Lynch at a time of high tensions between the two countries. The meeting became a ‘sort of prelude’ to the Good Friday/Belfast peace deal, according to the former Cabinet minister quoted above.
But Kampfner said this time leaders will have to conduct any private conversations or meetings discreetly, as the protocol for a heads of state’s funeral is stricter than for any other such service – and especially since Queen Elizabeth was no ordinary figurehead.
“All heads of state and others will be very wary of being perceived as over-engaging in direct diplomacy on an occasion such as this,” Kampfner said.
Leaders will also need to be careful not to accidentally upstage the late monarch or attract attention with actions that could be seen as disrespectful. Memories are still fresh from the radiant selfie taken by former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt with former British Prime Minister David Cameron and former US President Barack Obama at the Johannesburg memorial service for Mandela.
Still, the chance moments between the leaders will be of great interest to seasoned observers, Kampfner said.
Such was the case of the famous handshake between Obama and the Cuban Raul Castro at Mandela’s funeral, a brief moment interpreted as proof of a warming relationship between Washington and Havana.
The farm in the spotlight
For Liz Truss herself, the occasion will provide “polite moments to get to know each other” with key leaders that should prove invaluable to a prime minister appointed only earlier this month, Kampfer said.
But he warned that the new British Prime Minister ‘will not want to be seen engaging in discussions about the many issues facing the world, due to the sensitivity of the moment’.
Certainly Downing Street is adamant that the UK’s 10-day mourning period must be strictly observed, which means that formal meetings between Truss and other international leaders will not be scheduled until politics resumes. For more substantive conversations, Truss will therefore have to wait for the United Nations General Assembly to be held in New York later in the week.
“I think if a President or a Prime Minister came and expressed their sincere condolences about Her Majesty and how much she was appreciated, and they spoke at that level, they would have a big impact,” the MP said. curator Peter Bone, who attended Thatcher’s funeral.
“If they say – ‘we want a free trade agreement’, that will be totally inappropriate.”