Europe

Boris Johnson's awkward debut as foreign secretary in Brussels

Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives at an European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Boris Johnson had in Brussels his first task abroad as British foreign secretary

As a classical scholar, Boris Johnson must surely have wondered if his plane's diversion and emergency landing on the way to Brussels - his first international foray as foreign secretary - was an omen.

The Roman practice of augury was the study of the flight of birds to interpret the will of the gods, not the flight of fixed-wing aircraft.

Still, the unscheduled descent from the skies to a runway lined by fire crews and the subsequent blocking of the runway at Luton airport so soon after taking off from RAF Northolt on Sunday afternoon must have meant something.

It undoubtedly meant Mr Johnson was late for his evening meeting with Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign policy chief.

This morning, she was gracious. They "had a good exchange on the main issues on the agenda... and we will welcome him as a new member of the family".

But a member for how long?

Image copyright AP
Image caption Mr Johnson met the EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini

Heading to a working breakfast with his 27 fellow foreign ministers early on Monday morning, the new foreign secretary did not duck the inevitability, as he sees it, of Britain leaving the European Union, but he also took care to stress once again his central message - that British exit from the EU is not the same as Britain leaving Europe.

The trouble is that many of his EU counterparts do feel those two are the same, and it is awkward for the man who led the Brexit campaign to victory that some of his campaigning rhetoric still haunts him.

Comparing the EU's alleged ambitions - the creation of a superstate - to those of Hitler, as Boris Johnson did in May, even if he said their methods were different, was judged spectacularly offensive.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has said Mr Johnson "lied a lot" to turn British public opinion against the EU. He vowed to speak to the new foreign secretary "with the greatest sincerity and frankness.''

Later, he told a news conference that Mr Johnson had behaved with "a certain modesty" at his first EU meeting.

Mr Ayrault also called for a quick start to formal talks on British exit to end what he called "the current situation of uncertainty".

That is a phrase on many lips. It was also used in Brussels by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption It was also the first time a US secretary of state was at the council

His presence at the gathering was also awkward for Mr Johnson. It marked another symbolic first: the first participation by a US secretary of state in an EU Foreign Ministers Council.

Mr Kerry specifically explained his attendance as a demonstration of the level of enthusiastic US support for the EU and European integration - even if he balanced it slightly by stressing his and President Barack Obama's concern for Britain's prospects after the EU divorce.

Mr Johnson's own verdict on his debut at the European high table? "Very good, long, productive day."

There will be lots more, probably far longer and far more difficult, days to come.

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