Boris Johnson Heads for Brussels as EU Criticizes Tactics

Heads Roll in U.K. Government Shuffle
  • French Foreign Minister Ayrault accuses Johnson of lying
  • EU meeting on foreign affairs takes place in Brussels Monday

After spending the past five months condemning the European project, Boris Johnson is heading to Brussels next week to meet with many of the people charged with steering it.

Britain’s new foreign secretary is participating in the European Union’s foreign affairs council on Monday, less than a month after winning the argument to leave the bloc in the June 23 referendum. He may get an interesting reception.

Twitter: Simon McDonald on Twitter

Some of the most senior members of European governments have rounded on Johnson for the tactics he deployed during the referendum campaign.

“He lied a lot to the British people and now he finds himself with his back against the wall,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Europe1 radio in France on Thursday. “His appointment is revealing about the political crisis in Britain after the vote.”

Johnson, who has a history of insulting foreign leaders from U.S. President Barack Obama to Recip Erdogan of Turkey, is a surprise choice as Britain’s chief diplomat. Although he won’t be leading the U.K.’s negotiations on withdrawal from the EU, he may have around two years, while Britain is still a member of the bloc, to participate in talks on European foreign policy. Those discussions are likely to include sanctions on Russia and strategies to stem the flow of migrants from North Africa.

Monday’s meeting, which is scheduled to cover a range of issues from violence in South Sudan to Europe’s relationship with China, will also be attended in part by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who will discuss with foreign ministers policies on Ukraine and the Middle East.

“Boris Johnson spent part of his life in Brussels; it’s time for him to come back to Brussels, in order to check if everything he’s telling the British people is in line with reality,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Thursday at the Group of Seven summit in central Japan. “He would be welcome in Brussels at any time.”

Building Bridges

Johnson has bridges to build in the EU, the U.S. and around the world. He linked the EU to Adolf Hitler and once compared Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s presumptive candidate for president, to “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.” He referred to Africans as “picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” in a newspaper column in 2002, apologizing six years later. He’s also compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to “Dobby the House Elf” in the Harry Potter films and called him “a ruthless and manipulative tyrant.”

Johnson knows Brussels well. He spent a period in the early nineties working there as a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph newspaper while his father, Stanley, was a member of the European Commission and European Parliament for about 20 years.

It is the first job in government for Johnson, who finished his second term as London Mayor earlier this year. During the referendum campaign he argued that the EU erodes British sovereignty and loads unnecessary regulations on business.

“Boris Johnson is a seasoned politician who has understood how to exploit a Euroskeptic climate,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in an interview with Bild am Sonntag. “But now a completely different political task lies before him -- taking on foreign policy responsibility beyond Brexit.”

Johnson said it was inevitable that there would be some criticism coming his way because the referendum result wasn’t the one they were expecting.

“They’re making their views known in a frank and clear way,” he told reporters in London, before adding that Foreign Minister Ayrault has “sent me a charming little letter just a few hours ago saying he looks forward to working together and to deepening Anglo-French cooperation in all sorts of areas.”

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