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Europe greets Boris Johnson's foreign secretary appointment with dismay

Boris Johnson. Credit: PA Wire

It started with reports that a German newsreader was having trouble announcing the appointment of Boris Johnson without laughing.

It wasn’t long before the laughter turned to incredulity and then acute disappointment.

It would be something of an understatement to say that news of his elevation to the august position of British Foreign Secretary has not gone down well in Europe.

They remember Boris Johnson well here. As the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels Correspondent in the early 1990s, he had a reputation for, shall we say, imaginative reporting of EU affairs.

He set a style that became wildly popular on the Tory right, and that has been credited with influencing the tone of British press coverage ever since.

It is also widely believed by many Europeans that Johnson backed the ‘Leave’ camp for reasons of his political career rather than conviction, and that much of the blame for the current turmoil can be parked firmly at the door of his opportunism.

So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when, the morning after the referendum result, the President of the European Parliament was so angry he couldn’t bring himself to utter Johnson’s name. “That man” he called him, throughout our interview.

It is not just that they see him as a joke. The offence caused by his campaign references to the Nazis is genuine and deeply felt.

Boris Johnson's controversial comments during his Leave campaign angered leaders across Europe. Credit: Reuters

Ambitions to unify Europe were, he had said, “the EU trying to do what the Nazis wanted to do but by other means”.

Yesterday afternoon, shortly before Theresa May walked into No 10 and began appointing her new Cabinet, Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European Commission, had written a long and thoughtful blog on his Facebook page.

Timmermans is Dutch, a long-time anglophile who was educated in the British system, and who has a deep understanding of how politics works in the UK.

He knows what drives British euroscepticism, but believes that in the referendum campaign, the Leave camp went way beyond what is acceptable.

Without naming Boris Johnson, it is clear that his remarks were aimed directly at him.

A woman walks past a banner put up by protesters opposite the home of Boris Johnson in north London. Credit: PA Wire

“Why did you find it necessary to bring the Nazis into this campaign?” he asked. “Should politicians not be more aware of the potential impact of our words and actions? Our job is not a game”.

Within hours the man he was castigating was climbing the steps in King Charles Street to sit in a seat once occupied by Lord Castlereagh, Viscount Palmerston, Sir Anthony Eden and Ernest Bevin. Viewed from Brussels,the signal being sent is unmistakable.

It is true that most of the hard negotiating on Brexit is going to be done by David Davis and his ‘Exiting the European Union’ team, but on Monday morning it is expected that Johnson will be sitting around the table with his new colleagues in Brussels at the Foreign Affairs Council as they host US Secretary of State John Kerry for talks on Syria.

Boris Johnson pictured at the European Parliament in Brussels. Credit: Reuters

How are the EU’s efforts on Syria going to be helped by the presence around the table of a man who joked, just this year, about Turkey’s President Erdogan having sex with a goat?

Perhaps the biggest casualty in all this is the May government’s reputation for seriousness. The European press had already dubbed her “Britain’s Merkel”.

They didn’t know a great deal about her, but they did know that she was serious, sober and likely to be a formidable negotiator in the months ahead.

Well, suffice to say, they are not to sure about the serious and sober part any more.

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