PETER OBORNE: Many wanted him to fail, but Boris Johnson triumphed in Berlin… and suddenly Brexit is less like Mission Impossible
Last night’s meeting with Angela Merkel in Berlin was Boris Johnson’s first big test on the international stage. It was a test everybody expected him to fail.
Many were hoping he would. From his days as a Brussels-based journalist whose motif was his relentless ridiculing of the Eurocracy and their policies, our new Prime Minister has long been a hate figure in Europe.
But Mr Johnson passed with flying colours. More than that he pulled off a diplomatic triumph. He was charming, good-humoured, and got on far better than expected with the veteran German Chancellor.
What is more important he looked and sounded statesmanlike, a striking contrast to his often bumbling performances as Foreign Secretary. If a body language expert from Mars had been asked to say which of the two was the commanding global leader, they would have been hard put to pick Mrs Merkel.
She has been at the helm of Europe’s most powerful nation for nearly 14 years and was leader of her party for nearly 20. Boris Johnson has been Prime Minister for less than one month. But there was no sign of nerves, no suggestion that he was busking it, that he hadn’t mastered the brief.
From his days as a Brussels-based journalist whose motif was his relentless ridiculing of the Eurocracy and their policies, our new Prime Minister has long been a hate figure in Europe
On the contrary, several times during their joint press conference, Mr Johnson whipped out his pen from the inside top pocket of his jacket and made notes. It added to his confident demeanour.
And then, of course, Mr Johnson managed something which his predecessor Theresa May never once achieved. He secured a genuine concession!
He did so with deft diplomatic manoeuvring when Angela Merkel challenged him to come up with workable alternatives to the Irish backstop within a month — the complex and deeply sensitive issue which is the key to Britain’s departure from the EU.
Here is what Mrs Merkel actually said: ‘If one is able to solve this conundrum, if one finds this solution, we said we would probably find it in the next two years to come, but we can also maybe find it in the next 30 days to come. Then we are one step further in the right direction and we have to obviously put our all into this.’
This was Mr Johnson’s opportunity and he grabbed it. Indeed, he pounced like a chess grandmaster who has seen his opponent rashly expose their queen — and then masked his winning gambit with backhanded flattery: ‘You have set a very blistering timetable of 30 days, if I understood you correctly, I am more than happy with that,’ he told Mrs Merkel.
The German phrase he used to characterise his optimism on getting a Brexit deal — Wir schaffen das, which translates as ‘we can do it’ — brought another flicker of amusement to her thin lips.
Boris Johnson looked and sounded statesmanlike, a striking contrast to his often bumbling performances as Foreign Secretary
It was deliberate on Boris Johnson’s part and a clever tactic, a tribute almost. He knows that these were the very words Mrs Merkel used when she opened Germany’s doors to a million refugees fleeing Syria in 2016, a comment that has been thrown back in her face by her many homegrown critics ever since.
So far from pouring a dose of ice cold Baltic water on Mr Johnson’s river of Brexit optimism as she had been expected to do, Mrs Merkel yesterday appeared to go with the flow of ‘Boris boosterism’.
For a seasoned watcher of such encounters between European leaders, it was positively shocking to see Germany’s Iron Chancellor seduced — if that is the right word — by Mr Johnson’s charm and cheek. It was shades of Reagan and Thatcher, that great and productive political flirtation of the Eighties.
Of course, this does not mean that the problem of the Irish backstop is solved.
Mr Johnson and Mrs Merkel agreed that the onus was on Britain — not Brussels — to find a way round it, something that has proved beyond the wit of the best Brexiteer brains so far for all Mr Johnson’s declarations otherwise.
The Prime Minister now has until September 21 to come up with his solution. By a pleasing coincidence, that is the opening day of the Labour Party conference.
Boris Johnson also managed to open up a chink of light in what has, up until now, been a united front between France and Germany against Britain
Yesterday’s encounter achieved something even more satisfying. Boris Johnson also managed to open up a chink of light in what has, up until now, been a united front between France and Germany against Britain.
Earlier the French had made clear that they were determined not to budge an inch on the Withdrawal Agreement, but Angela Merkel has budged, doubtless to the fury of President Emmanuel Macron.
All in all not a bad day’s work for Britain’s novice PM!
There are undoubtedly challenges ahead and we shouldn’t exaggerate Mr Johnson’s success.
Theresa May spent the last three years trying and failing to work out an acceptable alternative to the Irish backstop, and on the surface at least it’s hard to see how Boris Johnson can solve a problem in just four weeks that roundly defeated her.
That said, there’s all the world of difference between Theresa May’s defensive, almost supplicant language and Boris Johnson’s buoyant optimism and can do attitude.
He was enjoying himself yesterday. He wasn’t intimidated. And it showed. What a change from his predecessor.
The elegance and richness of his language was a joy after the well-meaning and dogged, but awkward and leaden-footed Mrs May, for whom press conferences with her European counterparts were increasingly torture.
There were several small, well-judged touches, too. Mr Johnson, an accomplished linguist, referred to Mrs Merkel as ‘Angela’ with a polished and correct German accent. There was also clarity and directness, none of the usual evasive and meaningless political jargon.
‘What seems impossible at first — irresistible force meets immoveable object — turns out to be possible right at the end,’ he said before drawing on a racing metaphor for the last stages of EU horse trading that lie ahead: ‘The solutions often come in the final furlong, when the horses change places.’
In truth, you didn’t need to hear a word of what either of them said to observe the chemistry between the two leaders; the warm greetings at the start and the broad smiles both wore during the press conference.
And afterwards they shared a drink on a balcony together, Mrs Merkel with a glass of wine and holding an imaginary phone to her ear, apparently lightheartedly recounting a conversation she’d had with some other politician — perhaps with a frosty Macron — as Mr Johnson stood, cool and collected, one hand in his pocket, the other holding a glass of what looked like a soft drink.
Only a fool would pretend that Brexit has been solved. It still looks close to impossible that Mr Johnson can strike a deal with Europe and arrange a smooth British exit from the European Union by October 31, as he promised.
There are just 70 days to go. But it looks less like Mission Impossible than it did 24 hours ago. Mr Johnson has got off to the best possible start.
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