British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson yesterday said that Britain would continue to play a leading role in Europe as he met his EU peers in Brussels for the first time.
The normally ebullient Johnson was on his best behavior after infuriating his partners in the run-up to the referendum by comparing the EU’s ambitions for closer European integration to Adolf Hitler’s.
“We have to give effect to the will of the people and leave the European Union, but ... we are not going in any way to abandon our leading role in European participation,” Johnson said.
He said he had a “very good conversation” on the subject with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini late on Sunday — although his dinner with her was called off after his plane had to make an emergency landing.
“I am very much looking forward to meeting my colleagues,” Johnson added.
The former London mayor was a key player in the June 23 Brexit referendum and his appointment as foreign minister last week stunned many in Europe, with French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Marc Ayrault saying he had lied to voters during the campaign.
Mogherini, arriving just after Johnson, said the two had “a good exchange on the main issues on the agenda today.”
She refused to be drawn on Britain’s negotiations for its departure from the bloc, which EU leaders insist can only start once London invokes Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty to trigger the divorce.
Britain remains a member of the EU until those negotiations are completed, she added.
Ayrault, speaking separately, said he had a “frank and useful” phone conversation with Johnson.
“There are lots of things to work on with Britain, I will always talk to Boris Johnson with the greatest sincerity, the greatest frankness, I think it is like that, we have to move on,” he said.
At the same time, he repeated French calls for Britain to launch the Article 50 negotiations as soon as possible in order to end the state of uncertainty.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said she would likely do that at the end of this year or early next year, but not before London has worked out what sort of future relationship it wants with the other 27 EU members.
Johnson’s arrival was awaited with some trepidation given his role in the Brexit referendum and his reputation for quips and bon mots which have often landed him in hot water.
Johnson is well known in Brussels, where he worked in the 1990s as the Daily Telegraph’s EU correspondent.
His critics accuse him of beating up his stories to play to the eurosceptic gallery at home.
Officials in Brussels said they would welcome Johnson as they would any new foreign minister, but there is little doubt his Brexit role ruffled feathers.
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