British humour has no borders: EU reacts to surprise choice of Boris Johnson as UK foreign minister

Appointment to top diplomatic role likened to 'trusting the cat to keep the cream'.

Boris Johnson | Photo credit: Press Association

EU reaction to the appointment of Boris Johnson as the UK's top diplomat has been one of incredulity and scepticism, with Arch-EU federalist Guy Verhofstadt saying, "British humour has no borders".

Johnson's promotion to the post of UK Foreign Secretary was one of several surprise appointments as the country's new Prime Minister Theresa May set about picking her new cabinet team, alongside the choice of long-standing Eurosceptic David Davis as the minister in charge of negotiation the UK, exit from the EU.

However it was the appointment of Johnson, a key figure in delivering a Leave victory in last month's referendum that set tongues wagging across the continent after the so-called "gaffe-prone" MP made what many called a "Lazarus" style political comeback.


Only two weeks ago, Johnson was outmanoeuvred by his close friend and Leave campaign running mate Michael Gove for the chance to contest the country's premiership following the decision by David Cameron to stand down. Johnson was heavily ridiculed for his inaction and confusing statements following the Brexit vote and appeared to be bound for the political wilderness, until May's surprise announcement on Wednesday.



French Daily, Le Figaro said the "legendary" Mr Johnson "gives the impression of being guided by opportunism" arguing that Johnson's political career had seen him change his mind on gay marriage and on Turkey joining the EU.

Germany's Der Spiegel called Johnson a "controversial" politician and noted that his decision to support the Leave campaign was a deciding factor in the referendum result, which Leave won with 52 per cent of the vote.

Johnson was branded a “liar with his back against the wall” by his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault, who met Johnson when the two men were both mayors.



When asked on French radio if he was surprised by Johnson’s appointment, he said, “I don’t know if it surprised me. It’s a sign of the British political crisis that has come out of the referendum vote.”

He said France needed a partner it could negotiate with who was “clear, credible and who could be trusted”.

The Europe 1 radio interviewer told Ayrault: “I’ve got the impression you’re scared of being faced with the fanciful Boris Johnson,” to which the French foreign minister replied: “No, I’ve got no worries at all about Boris Johnson. But you know very well what his style and method are. During the campaign, you know he told a lot of lies to the British people and now it is him who has his back against the wall. He is up against it to defend his country and also so that the relationship with Europe is clear.”



Ayrault reaction reflected the overwhelmingly negative response to Johnson’s appointment from across Europe. In Germany, Simone Peter, the co-leader of the Green party, likened it to “trusting the cat to keep the cream”.

In a speech at Greifswald University, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier made an indirect reference to Johnson when he said that people are experiencing a “rude awakening after irresponsible politicians lured the country into the Brexit only to fly the coop and not take responsibility once the decision was made.”

"Instead they went to play cricket. To be honest, I find this outrageous but it's not just bitter for Great Britain. It's also bitter for the EU," he said.



During the referendum campaign Johnson compared the EU's aims to Hitler's, saying both the Nazi leader and Napoleon had failed to unify the continent.

Writing shortly after news of Johnson’s appointment broke, Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European Commission, wrote a Facebook post criticising the Leave campaign.

The Dutch official, a long-time anglophile who was educated in the British system and who has a deep understanding of how politics works in the UK, referred to Johnson without naming him, asking, "Why did you find it necessary to bring the Nazis into this campaign?"

"I have no problem whatsoever if people argue that the EU is something that goes against their interests and they do not want to be part of it. But to accuse people who believe in it of trying to finish where Hitler left off is, to say the least, a bit rich."



Johnson will soon have the opportunity to ingratiate himself with some of his critics when he travels to Brussels on Tuesday for a meeting of EU foreign ministers.


Read the most recent articles written by Brian Johnson and Martin Banks - EU puts pressure on new British Prime Minister to initiate Brexit talks