The Foreign Secretary’s clumsiness and ignorance has undermined his own country’s exit strategy
Britain can be proud of itself. Once again, it had already shown the world the way. In propelling Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage to triumph on 23 June, it demonstrated well before 8 November that Donald Trump was nothing new.
In fact foolishness, vulgarity, inconsistency, and irresponsibility seem actually to be British inventions that have been painstakingly copied – once more – by the Americans.
The age of such drab characters as Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron is over. No more, it appears, must we suffer leaders equipped with a brain and a sense of the common interest. The hour of the political clown has come.
In a few short weeks, Boris Johnson, the former journalist – for whom facts were never an obstacle likely to get in the way of a good story – has succeeded in squandering what little sympathy and understanding was left in Europe for a Great Britain embroiled in the mess of this referendum.
It is quite some diplomatic achievement to have succeeded in uniting, as never before, the 27 remaining members of the European Union – including Germany and the Netherlands – who are all now firmly together in deciding to do the UK no favours whatsoever.
It will be a “hard Brexit” not because that is what Theresa May wants, but because her future ex-partners consider they have no choice faced with a Great Britain so resolutely indecisive.
Johnson has deeply annoyed his continental partners by displaying, firstly, his complete ignorance of the union (perhaps not altogether surprising if you knew him as a “journalist” in Brussels, as I did). According to his very personal interpretation of the European treaties, it is “bollocks” to say that the four fundamental freedoms (free movement of people, goods, services and capital) are inseparable.
“Everybody now has it in their head that every human being has some fundamental God-given right to move wherever they want,” he said earlier this month.
For Johnson, here there can of course be a “dynamic trade relationship and we will take back control of our borders, but we remain an open and welcoming society”.
Yet the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, warned him very clearly as early as September. “We’ll happily send Her Majesty’s foreign minister a copy of the Lisbon treaty,” he said. “He can then read about the fact that there’s a certain connection between the single market and the four freedoms. At a pinch, I can talk about it in English.”
Schäuble reiterated on 18 November that there “will be no à la carte menu. There is only the whole menu or none.” His Dutch colleague Jeroen Dijsselbloem, meanwhile, hammered the message home: Johnson is spouting stuff that is “intellectually impossible” and “politically unachievable”.
Nevertheless, Johnson repeats his mantra ad infinitum: he is right, and the others are all wrong. The problem, however, is that at the end of the day it is the others who will decide. And if you want something from someone, it is generally wiser to avoid telling them they are an idiot.
But the foreign secretary adds clumsiness to ignorance. Johnson – who has, remember, written a biography of Winston Churchill – does not seem to grasp that it takes a mind with a rare degree of finesse to be able to combine humour and diplomacy.
His quip that the Italians would sell less prosecco to Britain if the UK was not able to stay in the single market not only created a diplomatic incident, but underlined the obvious weakness of the British argument: if the EU risks losing access to a market of 64 million Brits, Britain will lose access to a market of 440 million Europeans.
And last but not least, Johnson, who himself raised the spectre of hordes of Turkish citizens arriving in the UK if it stayed in the union, now steps up as as the most ardent defender there is of Ankara joining the EU – even if it reintroduces the death penalty.
“I can no longer respect this,” raged the normally placid Manfred Weber, leader of the conservative EPP group in the European parliament. “When you want to leave a club, you have no say anymore in the long-term future of this club.”
A famous French screenwriter Michel Audiard coined a phrase in the early 1960s that applies perfectly to Johnson: “Les cons, ça ose tout, c’est même à ça qu’on les reconnaît.” This means, roughly: “Fools” (to choose a relatively inoffensive rendering) “will try anything – that’s how you know they’re fools.”
The foreign secretary, who like Trump is no fan of beating about the bush, will pardon my familiarity. Or perhaps not.