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'I don't know what he will do': Europe braces for Brexit with Boris Johnson

Britain's possible future prime minister alarmed and charmed his European counterparts during his tenure as foreign secretary

Max Colchester & Laurence Norman | WSJ 

Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters
Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters

Boris Johnson’s last act as Britain’s foreign secretary was to gather a host of European dignitaries in London and fail to turn up.

As the group of ministers waited in a conference center in London’s docklands last summer, text messages flooded in: Mr. Johnson had just quit the British government in protest over its handling of “Well, it’s all rather happening, isn’t it?” said Alan Duncan, a British foreign office minister who was playing host amid the diplomatic mess, according to people present. European officials laughed, and some expressed relief that Mr. Johnson was gone.

Mr. Johnson may now be set to return this week, this time as Britain’s prime minister, and European officials say they don’t know what to expect.

Over the course of his career—including his leadership of the campaign and his rocky tenure as Britain’s foreign secretary—Mr. Johnson has proved to be unpredictable. He has survived scandals, and against the odds won the race to be mayor of London as well as the referendum to quit the EU. He promotes leaving the world’s biggest trade bloc but also markets himself as pro-globalization and pro-business.

In his two years as foreign secretary, he at times alarmed his European counterparts: He once compared former French President François Hollande to a World War II prison guard and likened the highly technical talks to trading Legos for candy.

Other times, he charmed them. His former aides recall being overwhelmed by demands from foreign ministers for bilateral meetings with the man they just called “Boris.” He has delved into deep discussions with officials about ancient Greek history and lobbied hard in Washington to defend the EU’s stance on Iran.

Mr. Johnson declined to comment for this article.

As prime minister, Mr. Johnson promises to dial up the brinkmanship between the U.K. and EU ahead of Britain’s scheduled exit from the trade bloc on Oct. 31. Mr. Johnson says he wants to renegotiate a divorce deal. The EU has repeatedly said the agreement isn’t up for renegotiation.

Mr. Johnson has said in recent weeks the EU must believe he is prepared to go through with an economically damaging “no deal,” otherwise better divorce terms won’t be offered. Britain’s Parliament has previously voted to block such an abrupt split with the EU, but in Brussels officials are preparing for turbulence.

“I don’t know what he will do now,” Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, said of Mr. Johnson’s Brexit plans. “He’s a born actor. But you know, Brexit is not a play.”

Mr. Johnson’s stance has struck a chord with the 160,000 Conservative members who are expected to select him as their leader Tuesday. Many of them feel dismayed that Brexit still hasn’t happened, despite a majority of the country voting for the project in 2016. They want to see Britain break with the EU and be free to negotiate its own trade deals and set its own rules.

“Boris has the charisma to do it,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg, a lawmaker who leads a faction of euroskeptics in Britain’s Parliament. “Charisma is the stardust of Boris has it and almost everyone else doesn’t.”

His negotiating tactic is a contrast to the government’s mainly nonconfrontational approach to the Brexit talks under Prime Minister Theresa May. EU officials never thought Mrs. May would actually leave the EU without a deal. Playing in his favor, Mr. Johnson’s unpredictability means that his “no deal” threat could be taken seriously and concessions offered to avoid yet another European crisis.

“Let’s not forget two things,” said Edgars Rinkevics, Latvia’s long-serving foreign minister. “He is a very charming guy.…Second, he’s a clever person.”

Mr. Johnson has been a vocal critic of the EU: He once said the EU was pursuing similar goals to Hitler’s. Yet he has also said that he has good relations in Brussels built up over his career. “I spent many happy years in Brussels and I know the system extremely well,” Mr. Johnson said at an event recently. When an interviewer pressed him over which EU politicians he had strong relations with, he named one Irish minister.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s life is deeply entwined with the trade bloc he is eager to leave. In the 1970s his father, Stanley Johnson, worked in the European Commission and Mr. Johnson went to school briefly in Brussels.

He returned to Brussels as a journalist, where he found a niche writing critical, and sometimes inaccurate, articles about the EU. Hits included stories about an attempt to get the EU to reclassify carrots as fruit and an unfounded claim that the EU commission headquarters building in Brussels would be blown up.

Acquaintances have publicly speculated whether Mr. Johnson supported leaving the EU out of personal conviction or for personal advancement. Those who worked with him as London mayor were surprised that the internationalist Mr. Johnson joined an anti-immigration platform to push for Brexit.

Others say that his worries about Britain’s loss of sovereignty to the EU are deeply held. “This is not an opportunistic stance,” said Stanley Johnson of his son’s decision to back Brexit.

After serving as London’s mayor for eight years, in 2016 he successfully fronted the Brexit campaign. Mr. Johnson then ran to become prime minister but had to pull out of the race when his main political backer declared that Mr. Johnson couldn't “provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.” Mr. Johnson quickly withdrew from the race.

In July of that year, Mrs. May offered Mr. Johnson the job as foreign secretary. The plum role was aimed at both appeasing Mr. Johnson and keeping him out of U.K. domestic politics, according to government officials. The role had little part in the Brexit negotiations.

When he was appointed, the French foreign minister at the time, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said Mr. Johnson had “told a lot of lies to the British people” about Brexit. His German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier referred to Mr. Johnson as someone who had first “lured the country into Brexit and then, once the decision was made, decided to bolt from responsibility.”

It took four months, an unusually long time, before Mr. Johnson received an invitation to make a bilateral visit to Berlin. During a news conference, Mr. Johnson offered his stern German counterpart a fist bump. Mr. Steinmeier stretched out his right arm for a handshake. “OK,” muttered Mr. Johnson.

“This was not the kind of British foreign minister we were used to,” said a German official involved in meetings.

An early trip to Moscow to forge a rapprochement with Russia soon fell apart. Mr. Johnson sought to build diplomatic bridges in the Middle East but angered officials in Downing Street by accusing Britain’s longstanding ally Saudi Arabia of conducting proxy wars.

After a dual British-Iranian citizen, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, was arrested in Iran, he said she had gone there to teach journalism. Her family had denied that, and the British government officially supported her insistence that she had been in Iran on vacation. Mr. Johnson later apologized. Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe is serving five years in prison on charges of plotting to overthrow the Iranian regime.

Mr. Johnson did prove willing to defend Europe’s geopolitical interests, touring Washington to support the EU’s position on a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear activities. He worked to try to halt a bloody war in Yemen.

He successfully got almost two dozen EU leaders to rally round the U.K.’s efforts to expel Russian diplomats after a chemical attack in England and forged ties with the Trump administration.

Meanwhile, he launched ventures that were unusual for a foreign secretary, banning plastic straws from the foreign office and promoting a campaign against wildlife poaching.

He still found time to read ancient Greek poetry before bed, occasionally worked on a book about Shakespeare and was seen dining in the canteen. Officials say he put in long hours and read briefing papers and newspapers voraciously. He told aides his credo when talking in public was “that the one person I must entertain is myself.”

At a meeting with Cypriot officials, he launched into a discussion of who really won the bitter 5th-century B.C. wars between Athens and Sparta. Sparta may have won the battles, he said, but it was Athens’ experiment with democracy and citizens’ rights that were the real winners over time, according to a person who attended the discussion.

Mr. Johnson regularly dismissed warnings from British civil servants about the risks of leaving the EU without a deal to smooth the transition, which he dubbed “Project Fear” in his newspaper columns. “The healthy skepticism of a journalist also makes him suspicious of officials who say something can’t be done,” says Guto Harri, a close aide to Mr. Johnson when he was London mayor.

Visiting Brussels on the day formal Brexit divorce talks between the EU and the U.K. started in June 2017, Mr. Johnson sought to show that Britain could both leave the trade bloc and maintain seamless access to it. He held a small event with his Danish counterpart, Anders Samuelsen, declaring that they had agreed the free flow of a traditional British candy—Liquorice Allsorts—in return for tariff-free imports of Danish-made Legos.

“The imports of Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts will be unimpeded.…There will be no tariffs, no quotas, no barriers because that would not only be bad for Britain, it would be bad for Denmark. It would be bad for the world,” Mr. Johnson said.

It was tongue in cheek and Mr. Samuelsen joined in the fun. Danish officials didn’t. As an exporting nation whose firms would have to compete with British companies, Denmark was among the most hard-line in insisting during Brexit talks that Britain couldn’t have the advantages of frictionless trade within the EU’s single market without accepting EU rules on free movement of people and regulation.

A few months after Mr. Johnson’s appointment as foreign secretary, he met an Italian economy minister Carlo Calenda. Mr. Johnson suggested Italy should push for Britain to get special access to the EU’s single market or it would be hit with falling Prosecco sales. “Putting things on this level is a bit insulting,” Mr. Calenda said to Bloomberg TV at the time.

Away from the EU, Mr. Johnson could enliven drab proceedings. In his early meetings in the job at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a British official described him sitting in NATO’s Brussels headquarters as if he were in the House of Commons, nodding profusely and uttering “hear, hear” when one of his counterparts made a point he agreed with.

Japan’s foreign minister asked Mr. Johnson for an autograph when they first met, and later watched appreciatively as Mr. Johnson glugged down a can of peach juice from an area of Japan that had been hit by a nuclear disaster.

Mr. Johnson worked to revive Britain’s Commonwealth relations. His euroskepticism was welcomed in some powerful Gulf countries, where Brussels was seen as soft on Iran.

His euroskepticism was also welcomed by the Trump administration. Mr. Johnson, who was born in New York, was an early cheerleader of President Trump following his election. (Mr. Johnson gave up his American citizenship in 2016.)

In May last year, Mr. Johnson visited the White House to urge the Trump administration to keep the Iran nuclear deal. During his visit he surprised aides by wandering around the White House opening doors at random and greeting staffers including Mr. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, according to a person present. His appeal failed.

Still, President Trump has hailed Mr. Johnson as “a very talented guy” who would make a “great prime minister.”

By mid-2018, it became clear that the U.K. wouldn’t be able to quickly break away from the EU. Mr. Johnson stepped up the defense of Brexit.

“It’s not some great V-sign from the cliffs of Dover,” Mr. Johnson said in a speech, referring to a rude gesture in the U.K. “It is the expression of a legitimate and natural desire for self-government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Mrs. May soon presented her Brexit “Chequers” plan, which outlined a future with Britain retaining close ties with the EU and a multiyear transition period when Britain would follow almost all EU rules.

Eager to show that Britain wasn’t turning its back on after Brexit, the British government lobbied EU officials to host a London conference in July 2018 intended to promote economic integration in southeastern German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Polish prime minister were among the guests for the leaders meeting the following day.

On July 9, the waiting dignitaries in London were told Mr. Johnson was likely delayed by a national security briefing. He was actually huddled at his residence working on his resignation letter. “The dream is dying,” he wrote in that letter to Mrs. May, “suffocated by needless self-doubt.”

Within days, Mr. Johnson penned an article with the slogan “Chuck Chequers.”

His campaign to become prime minister was under way.

First Published: Tue, July 23 2019. 10:23 IST
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