The embarrassing gulf between the EU's approach and our own

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrive for a press conference in August 2019

Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson in 2019 in Berlin - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on how the UK needed someone serious to take charge of Brexit - but ended up with Boris Johnson.

When Boris Johnson first became prime minister, I called round a few contacts in European capitals, to get a feel for how they viewed what was by any calculation quite a major change from the style of both David Cameron and Theresa May. In his recent book Barack Obama will have echoed the view of many foreign leaders, describing Cameron as someone comfortable in his own skin, chilled, easy to get along with, if perhaps of a background that meant he had never had to fight too hard, hence his seeming indifference to the consequences of austerity.

Hence too, I might add, a similarly cavalier attitude when taking the decision to hold an in-out referendum on Europe as a way of appeasing an unappeasably Europhobic right wing of his party and UK politics more broadly. With May, I am not sure she was the type to forge warm relationships or real friendships that sometimes do form out of diplomacy. But there was at least certain respect for her hard work and her attempt to play a very weak hand as well as she could.

Johnson was a very different proposition to both of them. The comment that stuck with me on my ring-round was from a member of Angela Merkel’s team, who, when I asked how she was likely to get on with the new UK PM, replied: "You know what she’s like... she likes serious people."

It was not difficult to decode. Johnson, who first came across the radar of EU leaders and their teams when making up stories about their dastardly deeds and intentions for the Daily Telegraph, and then more significantly when he was building his reputation as the most useless foreign secretary of modern times, is not viewed as un homme sérieux.


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European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, une femme sérieuse, has remained steadfastly diplomatic in all pronouncements about the dinner of last week billed by Johnson’s media sycophants as the event where his famous charm (sic) would lead to a breakthrough which had thus far eluded Michel Barnier and David Frost, or 'Brent' as he is called at our kitchen table.

Doubtless one day official and unofficial accounts will go into detail beyond the pumpkin soup and scallops, turbot and vegetables, and Pavlova, and the characterisation of their exchanges as 'frank'. But the unofficial accounts I pick up here and there suggest that if charming her had been his goal, he missed, badly.

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As with her compatriot chancellor Merkel, there is a warmth to von der Leyen, but it takes second place to making sure important issues are dealt with in a serious way.

There was something profoundly unserious about Johnson thinking he could somehow bulldoze Barnier out of his place as the Commission’s main point man, and therefore that of the 27 EU leaders, in the negotiations. There was something equally profoundly unserious about his thinking, once the dinner had not gone according to plan, that he could personally reach out to Merkel and president Emmanuel Macron. It suggests his years in Brussels really were more dedicated to bent banana fictions than learning how the EU actually negotiates with a third country, which is what, thanks to him, we now are.

Indeed, on the fictions, his dinner with von der Leyen took place in the very building which, more than two decades earlier, Johnson had reported was going to be blown up by those crazed Brussels bureaucrats about whom he so loved to fictionalise. Sappers, he filed excitedly, had worked out exactly where and how to lay the charges to reduce the asbestos riddled monstrosity to rubble.

Once a lying charlatan willing to say anything to suit his own agenda, always … an unchanged leopard. Of course there are side relationships that develop around any multinational negotiation but in the main they happen in and around summits and the like. We have left. We are that third country. Britain’s choice. Johnson’s responsibility.

For him to have got round that constitutional and political reality in this case would have required there to be a bank of trust and respect which is close to running on empty. What little respect and trust there had been from Merkel and Macron was significantly eroded by the UK government signalling its willingness to break international law on something as important as the agreement reached to cover safety in Northern Ireland.

I do not sense much of that respect or trust was recouped when the government ditched the offending clauses of the Internal Market Bill. "Are we supposed to be grateful that he undid something he should never have done in the first place? Damage done," is how a French government official put it. It may be that Johnson did indeed know that the individual leaders would not negotiate separately from the Commission on such a vital issue at such a vital time. In which case he was making an offer to be refused, in order to feed the narrative being developed in Number 10, about the nasty Europeans not being nice to the UK for daring to break away.

That we are to be punished for our audacity is a very important element of that narrative. It portrays the UK as plucky and adventurous, the EU as petty and spiteful. I have heard the narrative every time I have ventured onto the airwaves in recent days in debate with any of those poor souls still seeking to persuade themselves Brexit is a great idea, and would be going well but for those awful foreigners and the kind of awful Remoaner likely to be reading this paper.

On Sunday, I found myself contacting my Merkel contacts again, passing on for their interest the front page of the Mail on Sunday, which led with a screaming headline that Merkel wanted Britain to "crawl across broken glass". Now, if you have ever met Merkel, I think we can all agree that over the top rhetoric is not exactly her style.

Indeed I would put my life on the fact that she doesn’t think it, and therefore never said it. "Sickening but not surprising," is how it was viewed in Berlin. Sickening especially perhaps because of the obvious - whether deliberate or ignorant - resonance of the broken glass of Kristallnacht, and the Nazis’ pogrom of Jews in late 1938. And if you were minded to think it was deliberate, that view was bolstered by the full page inside focussed on the "arrogant" and "authoritarian" Mrs Merkel.

Again we must assume the headline writer and the journalist have never been in the same room as her. Her predecessor as chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, once made a very interesting observation, which has come to mind many times in recent years, watching papers like the Express, the Mail, the Sun and the Telegraph twist and turn every step of the Brexit road as though it were one long seamless ‘Boris’ triumph.

"Your country is very weird," said Schroeder. "What do you mean?" I said, my patriotic hackles rising somewhat. "A country with newspapers like yours is weird, really weird," he said. Hard to disagree. And anyone who compares Bild Zeitung to our tabloids has never read it. My friend in Berlin did have the good grace to say of the Mail on Sunday splash "don’t worry, most Germans do know that most Brits are a lot better than this". Sadly however, these better Brits do not include several newspaper owners and editors, or the people who currently occupy Number 10, and the main positions in the cabinet.

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