It was a shock. German politicians, their French counterparts, EU-representatives – they all shook their heads in disbelief when it was announced that the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, would become the UK’s new foreign secretary. German TV commentators reportedly could not stop laughing about the appointment. Others, such as the French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, described the Prime Minister’s choice as a sign of the political crisis in the UK. According to Ayrault, Johnson lied a lot during the referendum campaign and is now, what an irony, being rewarded with the post of foreign secretary.
Others tuned in, commenting on Johnson’s rather undiplomatic comments about for example President Obama’s African ancestry, and the fact that he, Johnson, lent his voice to a campaign that was made up of a lot of half-truths, to put it mildly (most of which have already been deleted from the internet). Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, stated: “To be honest, I find this outrageous. It’s not just bitter for Great Britain. It’s also bitter for the EU.”
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, however, did not comment on Prime Minister May’s choice. She instead called 10 Downing Street and invited her to Berlin. “I think it is our duty to work quite closely with governments of allied countries“, Merkel said. “The world has enough problems so we need to make progress in foreign policy collaboration, the way we have done it in the past with Great Britain.“
Again, Merkel behaved differently than her – mostly male – colleagues. Instead of exclaiming what an ill-fated choice the selection of Boris Johnson, a prominent Brexit-supporter, was, Merkel waits and sees, a tactic that she mastered very early on in her political career.
From a German point of view, Boris Johnson’s appointment is an interesting choice. Yes, admittedly, he is a populist. He is someone who seems to lack strong political beliefs and who jumped at the chance to join the Brexit-camp just because it fit his long term ambitions. Seldom has this been so obvious as in the case of Boris Johnson, a man who seemed to have little in common with hardcore Brexit supporters such as David Davis, Theresa May’s new Brexit-minister, or Nigel Farage, the former head of UKIP who decided to withdraw from the public eye quickly after the referendum in order to make sure that he will not be associated with the mess that is likely to follow.
However, with the appointment of a Brexit-minister and the creation of an international trade ministry, May has made sure that Johnson’s remit will be quite limited. The real driver in Britain`s Brexit-negotiations will not be the Foreign Office, but 10 and 11 Downing Street as well as the Brexit ministry and the ministry for international trade. Consequently, foreign secretary Johnson will not be involved too much in negotiating Britain´s future relationship with Europe. At the same time, May has made sure that Johnson is inside the government, not outside where he could have easily attacked her decision-making without having to carry any responsibility himself.
He will be fairly busy in the months to come, travelling the world, trying to get the message across that although the UK has voted to leave the EU, it is not turning its back against the world. In addition to that, he will have to make sure that he does not make too many gaffes, something that he is quite known for.
It remains to be seen whether Johnson will be able to curb his tongue. If he does not, he might be the first minister of this new government to be sacked. At least, that´s what the bookies think.