Johnson set to work his charm on sceptical EU colleagues

Britain’s new foreign secretary seen as a divisive figure as he makes Brussels debut

Boris Johnson will be hoping some of his fabled charm rubbed off on EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on Sunday night when he met the former Italian foreign minister for dinner. His Brussels debut as foreign minister got off to a bad start when his plane was forced to make an emergency landing at Luton airport, leaving him several hours late for the scheduled dinner.

Monday's meeting of EU foreign ministers comes at a tricky time. The foreign affairs council had been in the diary for months. Mogherini had originally planned an informal dinner of foreign ministers for Sunday in order to have a post-Brexit de-brief with Philip Hammond, the former foreign secretary-turned chancellor, who had built up a strong working relationship with ministers since succeeding William Hague in the role two years ago.

Instead, faced with the surprise appointment of Boris Johnson, she opted for a one-on-one, with Johnson joining all 27 for Monday's meeting, along with US secretary of state John Kerry, who is in Brussels for a pre-arranged breakfast meeting.

The appointment of Johnson as the UK's foreign secretary has been met with a mixture of bemusement and indignation across Europe. From the initial wave of incredulity epitomised by former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, who tweeted that he wished it was a joke, the French and German foreign ministers were more vehement in their response, with France's Jean-Marc Ayrault accusing Johnson of having lied to the British people about the consequences of a Brexit.


European Commission vice-president Frans Timmersman, the anglophile former Dutch foreign minister with a cut-glass British accent from years of schooling in the United Kingdom, gave more a nuanced, considered response. In a thoughtful Facebook post he recalled Johnson's comparison a few months ago of the EU's ambitions with those of Adolf Hitler.  "How did hatred become an integral part of all this? Why is it necessary?"

The appointment of Johnson raises broader questions about the impact of Britain’s departure from the EU on the bloc’s foreign policy.

Given that Britain is the EU's biggest defence contributor, and the only other member state, along with France, to hold a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the ramifications of Brexit will be enormous. Britain, for example, is the leading player in EU missions in the Horn of Africa and in the search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

Future without Britain

In terms of resources, Britain brings huge expertise and capabilities to EU foreign policy, be it its behind-the-scenes work on the EU-brokered deal with Iran, or deploying its formidable naval resources to rescue missions.

Similarly it has taken a leading role in the introduction of sanctions against Russia, strongly advocating tough measures when other member states such as Italy have called for softening the approach. Even though Britain will remain at the EU Council table until it formally exits the European Union, it is likely to lack the authority it once had when renewal of sanctions again come up for discussion in six months time.

As the European Union ponders its future without Britain, there have been suggestions that Brexit may in fact give new momentum to a pan-EU defence policy, based upon a Franco-German axis, given Britain’s historic opposition to common EU defence measures such as an EU army.

Germany’s defence minister Ursula von der Leyen called last week for more joint European military initiatives, arguing that Britain had paralysed such initiatives in the past.

The appointment of such a divisive figure as Boris Johnson may also bring to the surface a question that has been quietly voiced in Brussels since last month’s referendum – is it fair that the United Kingdom continues to have the same influence and rights in shaping EU policy when it is on its way out of the union?

While personalities should not matter, many senior EU officials will be loath to hear Johnson pontificate about EU foreign policy when his country is leaving the bloc.

It is abundantly clear that British prime minister Theresa May’s appointment of Johnson was motivated by party political reasons rather than any considered analysis of who might be best placed to steer Britain through the coming months.

While much of the negotiations will fall to David Davis, the cabinet secretary in charge of Brexit, Johnson and the foreign office will still play a significant role. One can't help wondering whether a more diplomatic and less divisive appointment by May would have yielded more good will for Britain as it embarks on one of the greatest diplomatic challenges in its history.