BRUSSELS — Britain’s new top diplomat, Boris Johnson, came under sharp fire from his European counterparts on Thursday, with France’s foreign minister declaring that the “leave” campaigner had “lied a lot” during the push for Britain to break with the European Union.
Johnson is now charged, as Britain’s foreign secretary, with negotiating a divorce with E.U. colleagues who largely hold him in contempt. The cheerfully undiplomatic former mayor of London has a long history of colorfully insulting other nations and leaders, but the sharpest anger is connected to his campaign for Britain to leave the E.U.
“I have no worries about Boris Johnson, but you know well what his style is,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told France’s Europe 1 radio. “He lied a lot during the campaign.”
The reference covers a range of later-discredited claims by the anti-E.U. side before last month’s campaign, including the level of Britain’s payments to the European Union.
“I need a partner with whom one can negotiate and who is clear, credible, reliable,” Ayrault said.
The criticism from the usually buttoned-down Ayrault is almost without precedent in the discreet world of European politics, where top leaders typically attack one another’s policies, not characters.
But it foretells the reception the mop-haired Johnson is likely to receive among the 27 other E.U. foreign ministers during the coming years of fraught negotiations. E.U. foreign ministers will meet in Brussels on Monday in Johnson’s first test as foreign secretary.
“Sorry world,” read a cardboard sign that one British wag tied to the gate of Johnson’s London residence, captured on camera Wednesday night by Sky News.
Johnson will have to corral France and Germany as the E.U.’s most powerful nations and potential roadblocks to any advantageous deal for Britain as it navigates its split from the bloc. German and French politicians may have little tolerance for a man who during referendum campaign in Britain compared E.U. efforts to unify Europe with Napoleon and Hitler.
Johnson’s German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, also appears to hold a dim view of the newly minted British diplomat.
Hours before Johnson’s appointment was made public Wednesday, Steinmeier lashed out at him without using his name, criticizing “irresponsible politicians” who lured Britain toward a “Brexit,” then “didn’t take responsibility and instead played cricket.”
Johnson disappeared from public view in the days after last month’s shocking referendum result in favor of a British exit from the E.U. and instead played cricket at a friend’s country estate.
After the appointment, Steinmeier tempered his comments somewhat.
“Boris Johnson is a shrewd party politician who knew how to use the Euroskeptic mood for himself. But now there are completely different political tasks in the foreground,” he told Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Thursday.
In a short session with reporters outside the British Foreign Office on Thursday, Johnson shrugged off in his typically colorful fashion the European expressions of horror at his appointment. “After a vote like [the referendum], it is inevitable that there is going to be a certain amount of plaster coming off the ceilings in the chancelleries of Europe,” he said. Asked specifically about the French foreign minister’s assertion that Johnson had lied during the referendum campaign, he suggested that Ayrault had taken a very different tone in private communications. Ayrault, Johnson said, had “sent me a very charming letter” after his appointment.
A buoyant-looking Johnson said he was determined to ensure that Britain remains “a great global player” and said he and U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, speaking by telephone on Thursday, had agreed on the need to maintain Britain’s leading role in world affairs. The two will meet Monday in Brussels.
Johnson’s day-to-day involvement in Brexit negotiations is yet to be defined, and his direct collaboration with E.U. colleagues may be limited on the topic. In Europe’s complex decision-making system, foreign ministers typically handle only E.U. relations with the rest of the world, not issues within the union’s borders.
Foreign ministers are likelier to be found heading far-away missions to places such as Papua New Guinea — which Johnson once suggested boasted orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing — or Washington. That may have been one of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s strategies in appointing Johnson to the job, sidelining a critic who otherwise would have taken aim at her from his column in the Daily Telegraph.
The bigger disruption of Johnson’s appointment may be to U.S.-British relations — an irony since Johnson was born in New York.
It would mark a further blow to links between the White House and one of its most important global partners, at least until last month. Johnson has criticized President Obama as a “part-Kenyan” who harbored anti-British attitudes because his father’s nation was once part of the British empire.
Johnson’s appointment was announced during a regular State Department briefing on Wednesday, and spokesman Mark Toner appeared to bite back a grin when he heard the news.
Turkey is another nation where Johnson will have to lobby for couples counseling. In May, he penned a naughty limerick suggesting that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had “sowed his wild oats with the help of a goat, but he didn’t even stop to thankera.”
“May God help him and reform him,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told the BBC on Wednesday, before the appointment was announced. “And I hope that he won’t make any more mistakes and try to make it up with the Turks.”