The most famous Brexiteer in the British government uses Valentine’s Day to reach out to ‘Remain’ supporters — but his speech is slammed as "nonsense" in Brussels
Boris Johnson has made an appeal for unity over Britain’s most divisive issue in a generation.
The UK’s foreign secretary — whose pro-Brexit stance has aroused passions on both sides of the argument — spoke on Valentine’s Day to appeal to Leave and Remain supporters.
In a major speech delivered at the think tank Policy Exchange, Johnson went at length to argue that leaving the EU did not mean that Britain was turning its back on Europe or the world.
“It’s not some great V-sign from the cliffs of Dover,” he said.
His intervention is one of several to be given by government ministers amid confusion on the UK’s negotiating stance with Brussels. The British cabinet is divided over the nature of future ties the UK should seek with the EU.
Known to favour freedom to diverge from EU rules under a so-called "harder" Brexit, Johnson appeared to call for the country to go its on way on the environment, medical research and financial services.
He carried a familiar warning to those he said wanted to stop Brexit and “frustrate the will of the people. I believe that would be a disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal. We cannot and will not let it happen."
"But if we are to carry this project through to national success – as we must – then we must also reach out to those who still have anxieties,” the foreign secretary said, arguing that the pro-Brexit camp should not “gloat” over the referendum result.
Olive branch amid the rhetoric
The bulk of Boris Johnson’s speech was a familiarly flamboyant presentation outlining his vision of an outward-looking Britain that could thrive outside the European Union. Brexit, he said, was a cause for “hope not fear”.
He dissected what he saw as the “three types of concern about the momentous choice the nation has made” — strategic, spiritual and economic — seeking to show that “they can be turned on their head”.
“Brexit need not be nationalist but can be internationalist; not an economic threat but a considerable opportunity, not unBritish but a manifestation of this country’s historic national genius,” he said.
However, he compared the stance of pro-EU advocates who had won the argument in the past, with a temptation among today's victors.
"Is this the time now for the referendum winners to gloat? Should we sit back in silent self-satisfaction? I don't think we should," the foreign secretary said. "It is not good enough to say to remainers - you lost, get over it; because we must accept that the vast majority are actuated by entirely noble sentiments, a real sense of solidarity with our European neighbours and a desire for the UK to succeed."
Johnson praised the UK’s commitment to European defence and security, saying it made “sense” for this to continue. He dismissed arguments that Brexit would make the country more insular, citing the number of Britons who travel and live abroad.
Brexit, he went on, was “not about returning to some autarkic 1950s menu of spam and cabbage and liver”. It was “about re-engaging this country with its global identity, and all the energy that can flow from that”.
Bemused by ‘Spitzenkandidaten’
Then followed a colourful attack on the EU’s ethos and political direction, one with which the UK had found itself increasingly at odds.
The foreign secretary castigated hard-to-understand particularities of the EU’s internal organisation – such as the so-called “Spitzenkandidat process" used to choose the last EU Commission president.
“How many know the name of their Euro-MPs?” he asked, a point he put “to those who hail me in the street with cheery four letter epithets… at least they know roughly who I am”.
Taking Back Control
Familiar, too, was Boris Johnson’s economic case for the UK’s future outside the EU. Britain could “stop paying huge sums to the EU” and concentrate on domestic priorities “including, yes, the NHS”.
His pre-referendum campaign that Brexit would liberate 350 million pounds a week for the National Health Service has been hotly contested.
Taking back controls of Britain’s borders was not about being hostile to immigrants or immigration; on the contrary, talented people would always be welcome, the foreign secretary said. However, he slammed the effect of EU rules that had brought “20 years of uncontrolled immigration by low-skilled, low-wage workers”.
Boris Johnson painted a positive vision of a future outside the EU’s customs union and single market, arguing that “the economic benefits of membership are nothing like as conspicuous or irrefutable as is sometimes claimed”.
Brexit, he said, meant being free of directives imposed by Brussels (“intolerable, undemocratic”) that would make it all but impossible for the UK to strike free trade deals. Although, he added, “we will need to comply with EU regulation in so far as we are exporting to the EU”.
The foreign secretary’s speech ended with a call to embrace the many freedoms he said a future outside the EU would bring: “an outward-looking liberal global future for a confident United Kingdom”. History, he said, would praise the way “the British bucked the trend”.
“Whilst Boris Johnson is the prime minister’s foreign secretary, he’s normally kept well away from Brexit. That’s because he’s thought to threaten the prime minister’s leadership on that issue. Now this speech had been approved by Theresa May, but many are seeing it as yet another move by Boris Johnson to try to replace her,” Euronews’ UK correspondent Vincent McAviney reported.
'Glaring omissions'... 'Total nonsense'
Critics quickly attacked Boris Johnson for failing to tackle some of the thorniest issues in the Brexit negotiations, saying his speech had been devoid of detail.
Anti-Brexit opposition Labour MP Chuka Umunna tweeted that the speech had “glaring omissions on the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish border and new trade deals. It was nothing but an exercise in hypocrisy”.
“I don’t think there was much in there that was positive from the point of view of the clear majority of people – that’s both Remain and Leave voters – who do not want the ‘hard’ Brexit that Boris Johnson is advocating. They do not want us dragged out of the customs union, with all the associated problems for business, but perhaps even more critically, the problem of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland for which there remains no solution,” Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake told Euronews.
The early signs are that Johnson’s appeal for unity has fallen on deaf ears. His speech has brought scathing criticism on social media from his opponents. In turn, they have been attacked by at least one prominent Brexit supporter, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan targeting on Twitter those whose response to Johnson’s proposed reconciliation was “to howl and screech and call him names”.
There is little indication either of the foreign secretary’s message being well received in Brussels, which some may say does not augur well for the negotiations soon to reach another crucial hurdle over a post-Brexit transition.
The European Commission president castigated the notion put forward by Johnson that the EU wanted to build a European super-state. “The aim is to create an overarching European state as the basis for a new sense of European political identity,” were the foreign secretary’s words.
Speaking on Wednesday, Jean-Claude Juncker attacked those in British politics he said accused him of being a “stupid, stubborn federalist”.
“I am strictly against a European super-state,” he said. “The European Union… is a rich body because we have these 27-28 nations. The European Union cannot be built against European nations, so this is total nonsense."
The European Parliament's chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt also responded to Boris Johnson's speech. "Putting up barriers to the movement of trade and people and suggesting that the identity of citizens can only be national is not liberal - it's quite the opposite," he tweeted.
Theresa May will be in Munich on Saturday to meet with Angela Merkel, and set out her own vision for Britain’s relationship with the EU.