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'Mad in England': How does the world see Boris Johnson?

The international impression of Johnson has evolved from simply an eccentric mayor to a symbol of Brexit Britain.

German magazine Der Spiegel's depiction of Boris Johnson.
German magazine Der Spiegel's depiction of Boris Johnson.

EVEN BEYOND THE UK, Boris Johnson – who is now set to become next Prime Minister following his election as leader of the Conservative Party – is one of the best known British politicians. 

From his turn as London’s larger-than-life mayor during the 2012 Olympics to his role as Foreign Secretary under Theresa May, Johnson is a well-known figure in Europe and further afield. 

His election yesterday was immediately greeted by a volley of tweets from world leaders – from Donald Trump, who said he’d be “great”, to Jüri Ratas, the Prime Minister of Estonia.

The man who helped deliver Brexit, however, has often found himself at the centre of criticism and controversy over his off-the-cuff comments and bumbling-style diplomacy.

As Johnson prepares to receive the keys to Number 10 Downing Street, how has the world been viewing the prospect of a Johnson premiership?

US

US President Donald Trump has long been seen as a fan of Boris Johnson. Ahead of his state visit to the UK in June, Trump praised Johnson. “He’s been very nice. I have a very good relationship with him,” he told reporters. 

The US media, in the days and weeks leading up to the results of the Tory party leadership election, have been producing long, detailed profiles of the man tipped to win the leadership contest since before it even began. 

American interest in Johnson has potentially been driven by the shorthand characterisation of Johnson as a “British-Trump”. The New Yorker, which has long been critical of Trump, said Johnson’s “main talent” was to “make lies sound amusing”.

The New York Times, in a profile published on Monday, wrote:

In his pursuit to become prime minister, Mr. Johnson has adapted his old habits — the theatrics, the polysyllabic put-downs, the outlandish plans — for the Brexit era. Just as he used big-ticket ideas as London mayor to put a gloss on difficult circumstances, so he has tried to deflect from some of the complexities of Brexit, too.

The Atlantic called him “neither clown nor fraud, but a complex individual shaped and driven by a variety of factors”.

“He is about to enter a world in which speaking Greek matters little… in this world, of Trump and Xi, Merkel and Macron, Johnson cannot be on top internationally”, the magazine wrote.

In the Washington Post, in a piece published immediately following Johnson’s victory, columnist Anne Applebaum wrote:

The fact is that the Tory party has chosen Johnson not despitethe fact that he is an inventor of elaborate and untrue stories about the regulation of kippers, condoms, shrimp-cocktail-flavored potato chips and much else. They have chosen him because he is an inventor of elaborate and untrue stories. It is fiction, not fact, that they now want to hear.

Germany

Boris Johnson has never received the best reception in the German press.

Germany has often been a target of Johnson’s scorn – he once drew parallels between the EU and the aims of Hitler. 

Former German Minister for Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, once offered to send Johnson – during his tenure as Foreign Secretary – a copy of the Lisbon Treaty and teach him the rules of the EU.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the thought of a Johnson administration has received a frosty – and somewhat incredulous – reception in the German media. 

Stern boris Source: Stern

German news magazine Der Spiegel portrayed Johnson, who has always prided himself on his cartoonish image, as a Mad-magazine-type character. 

The magazine’s front cover pulled few punches: “Mad in England”, describing him as the man who incites the British against Europe. 

“The man dreams of being able to walk over water at some point. But now he wants to be made prime minister,” the magazine wrote.

Another news magazine, Stern, led with the headline: “What?! What is going on with the UK?”

France

France does not have the best impression of the man who once apparently called them “turds” over the country’s Brexit position. Even in 2012, French journalists were focusing on his poor grasp of policy detail and lack of concrete legacies to show for his time as mayor. 

One French magazine Libération might claim to have predicted Johnson’s ascension to power. The magazine greeted Brexit in 2016 with the words “Good Luck” – emblazoning Johnson on the cover, it suggested that the vote would make him prime minister. 

Since then, Emmanuel Macron has never hid his dislike of Brexiteers who, like Johnson, have taken a “do or die” approach to the UK’s exit from the EU. 

In March he wrote in a widely-published op-ed: “Ever since the second world war has Europe been so essential. Yet never has Europe been in such danger. Brexit stands as the symbol of that.”

For many French people, Boris is likewise the symbol of the worst impulses of Brexit. Le Monde, one of the country’s leading papers, ran a piece in June characterising Johnson as “a blunderer at the gates of power”. 

A recent editorial criticised his “chauvinistic rhetoric” and said that, if elected, Johnson could “taint the international credibility of a country that claims to be the champion of the rule of law”. 

Even the conservative Le Figaro portrayed Johnson as a man whose “ambition was strewn with controversy”. 

The rest of the EU

Lithuanian EU Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis did little to hide his concerns in a blog post following Johnson’s election. 

Comparing him to former Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, Andriukaitis criticised Johnson’s “many unrealistic promises, ignoring economic rationales and rational decisions”.

“I can only wish him luck in ‘taking back control’, spending more money on the NHS, swiftly concluding new trade agreements,” he wrote. 

Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, has become a key player in the Brexit saga. In June, he warned that the UK will become a “diminished country” regardless of the circumstances in which it leaves the EU. 

One leading paper, de Volkskrant, echoed these sentiments, telling its readers: “Déjà vu is the word that EU diplomats and officials use most often when it comes to Johnson.”

Canada

Canada has been one of the targets of the UK for a free trade agreement. While the paths of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Johnson haven’t crossed much, the latter will be hoping he can salvage negotiations that have so far stalled.

One of Canada’s main papers, the Toronto Star, took a sceptical tone to its coverage of Johnson ahead of his election:

Blond, buoyant and buffoonish, the 55-year-old Johnson may be one of Britain’s most famous politicians, but in many ways he is a mystery.

“Johnson statements are best taken with a grain of salt,” the paper added. 

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