Boris Johnson’s ‘love’ for Brussels


Picture of Riccardo Perissich
Riccardo Perissich

I must confess to something of a bias when it comes to the Johnsons, because I rather like them. All of the Johnson family behave as if they feel obliged to be bright, and are often exuberant but with the typical nonchalance of the British upper class. I am a friend and former colleague of Stanley Johnson, Boris’s father and a convinced European. And I later had the opportunity to know Boris while he worked in Brussels as a reporter for the Telegraph. He was popular, exceedingly amusing and a uniquely colourful character in what is often a very grey setting.

The problem with the Brexit supporters is not their vision of Europe, but their vision of Britain

Many commentators have condemned his support for Brexit as mere opportunism, but I don’t agree. In taking this stand, he must of course have had his political future in mind. But I do think his decision is sincere, as his scathing view of Europe has old roots. Brussels often leaves a strong impression on those who become involved in European affairs. Some, like the late Lord Cockfield, arrive sceptical and leave passionate Europeans. Others are favourably disposed but leave disappointed. Nothing of that sort seems to have happened to Boris. As the person who led the work of the European Commission on the single market, I strongly resented some of his pieces, such as those on euro-standard condoms or the threat to Britain’s prawn cocktail-favoured crisps. I soon realised it was useless trying to explain to him that these stories were all rubbish; he knew it, but he was merely expressing his contempt for a construction he didn’t care to understand.

Boris says that he loves Europe and Brussels, but his ‘love’ reminds me of the condescending British aristocrats who in the 18th Century took a grand tour of the continent, daydreamt in front of old ruins, enjoyed the music, acquired a few paintings by the great masters and went home ever convinced that they should keep their island politically disengaged with the continent. So his position is hardly surprising. The Boris ‘manifesto’ in the Telegraph is long and convoluted, strangely so for such a sharp mind. Perhaps this was because he wanted to introduce an element of intellectual sophistication to a side of the debate that is frequently accused of offering nought but an expression of guts feelings. He must know, though, that a referendum is to a large extent a matter of guts, and his bet may sadly be the winning one.

Self-delusion is not the stuff with which greatness is made

Maybe the problem with the Brexit supporters is not their vision of Europe, but their vision of Britain. Many that I have met are little Englanders with the imperial dream of the country ready to defy Napoleon, Hitler and the entire world, for they dislike the Americans as much as they dislike us. For them, forty years of involvement with the continent has only been a source of endless compromises, and they hate compromises when the foreigners happen to be in a stronger position. One could respect, even admire, them if it wasn’t for their blind complacency about the state of a country that no longer rules the waves, or indeed anything else. Self-delusion is not the stuff with which greatness is made.

If the British vote to leave the EU, we on the continent shall feel regret not only for the turmoil that follows, but also because we shall lose the contribution of the best diplomatic service in Europe and possibly the world. All we can do is tell Boris Johnson that if he loves Europe, as he claims, we in turn love Britain: the country with a splendid past and an uncertain future at best. The continent does not only love Britain for its historic democracy and all that, but also for the legacy of the Beatles, the Stones and others among the best musicians of recent times. Incidentally, they were not upper class at all.

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