World·Analysis

A 'pure product of the British elite': How Europe sees Boris Johnson's Brexit manoeuvres

Despite a series of humiliating votes in the U.K. Parliament this week related to Brexit, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson remains bellicose. Avoiding a no-deal Brexit means Europe will have won, and he won’t stand for it, writes Don Murray.

New British PM lost several key Brexit votes in parliament this week

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson continues to advocate a no-deal Brexit by Oct. 31. (Peter Summers/Reuters)

"The English are a worn-out people. They need to regenerate themselves." 

French president Charles de Gaulle said that 55 years ago to one of his ministers. He also vetoed Britain joining the European Common Market, the predecessor of the European Union. And he vetoed Britain not once, but three times from 1958 to 1963.

After De Gaulle died, the French relented and Britain joined the Common Market in 1973.

Forty-five years later, the English want out, not in. They said so in a referendum in 2016. (The Scots and the Irish of Northern Ireland voted in favour of staying in the EU.) But three years of raucous wrangling over the terms of withdrawal have left the English political class exactly where De Gaulle found them – worn out and in need of regeneration.

Enter Boris Johnson, the man who, according to his sister, wanted, as a child, to be "world king." Like his hero Winston Churchill, he aspires to be a man of destiny. Johnson wrote a biography of Churchill that reviewers said read like a self-congratulatory autobiography.

Now, in an echo of Churchill, Johnson has exhorted his parliamentary troops into battle — England again alone against Europe. Britain must leave the European Union on Oct. 31, even without a deal.

But unlike Churchill in 1940, Johnson does not lead a government of national unity. In fact, as of Sept. 3, he doesn't even have a majority in the House of Commons. More than 20 of his own MPs deserted him.

That led to humiliation – his government lost the first three votes with him as prime minister, a new and dubious record.

The result is a bill put forward by the opposition, soon to be ratified by both houses of parliament, blocking any no-deal Brexit. It also requires Johnson to ask Europe for an extension of the negotiation period for three months if no agreement is agreed by the House of Commons by mid-October.

'The pure product of the British elite'

Johnson seems undeterred. His rhetoric remains bellicose. He calls the bill a "surrender bill" running up "the white flag." Europe will have won; he won't stand for it.

Opposition MPs — and some from his own party — who gently point out that Britain is not actually at war with Europe are ignored. Johnson demands an election.

But he hasn't got that, either, at least not yet. Under recent British rules, two-thirds of MPs must vote for an early election, and only half voted in support of Johnson's call.

Seen from Europe, this has become more than a farce — it is now a savage carnival, led by an untrustworthy carnival barker.

Half a century ago, French president Charles de Gaulle said, "The English are a worn-out people. They need to regenerate themselves." (Chuck Mitchell/Canadian Press)

The French newspaper Le Monde painted this brutal portrait of Johnson on Aug. 29, after he announced a long suspension of parliament to try to force his MPs and the EU to bend to his will:

"He is the pure product of the British elite. There is the buffoon ... and the liar, who didn't hesitate to base his 2016 Brexit campaign on fallacious arguments. There is the dilettante. There is the polite and courteous statesman we saw at the G7 summit. And there is the populist, cynical and brutal prime minister, ready to do anything, including forcing the Queen to suspend parliamentary democracy to achieve his ends."

Those words are a reflection of the scorn and anger felt at the top levels of the French government toward Johnson and his government.

The Germans are not so much angry as horrified. "If this happened in a southern country, we'd talk of a coup d'état," Volker Perthes, who runs the German Institute of International Relations and Security, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Relying on the Americans

The man and his manoeuvres are fodder for the headlines. But below the fodder and froth, there is a deeper fault line between Britain and Europe. De Gaulle 60 years ago wasn't worried so much about Britain's need for regeneration as he was by its inclination to choose, as he put it, "le grand large" – the open sea, and the United States.

A French historian, Robert Frank, highlighted the fault line as "the German obsession of the French and the American obsession of the British."

Johnson's insistence that the U.K. will leave the European Union on Oct. 31, with or without a deal, has quite a few supporters. (Matt Dunham/The Associated Press)

Since the Second World War, French governments have clung tightly to Germany and the EU as the rampart against further European conflicts. The British have clung to their "special relationship" with Washington. This, one British foreign minister said, allows them "to punch above their weight."

Boris Johnson and his cabinet are an extreme example of this longing for "le grand large." In his speech to parliament on Sept. 3, he accompanied his warlike, anti-European rhetoric with a vision of a huge trade deal with Donald Trump's government. This way Britain would continue to punch above its weight.

On cue, Trump offered Boris a pat on the back. "He's in there fighting and he knows how to win. Boris knows how to win. Don't worry about him, he's going to be OK."

And so the "man of destiny" charges on. The question is, which man of destiny will he resemble – Churchill or Churchill's dauphin and successor, Anthony Eden? Eden crashed and burned when he tried to "punch above his weight" in 1956. He launched an invasion to take back the Suez Canal nationalized by the Egyptian government. It failed lamentably.

Eden was dumped from office after just 20 months.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said that the United Kingdom joined the European Community in 1974. In fact, it did so in 1973.
    Sep 05, 2019 10:49 AM ET

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.