Why it took a joker with tangled hair to charm us Europeans into a deal, according to Bild editor ALEXANDER VON SCHOENBURG
Alexander Von Schoenburg (pictured) Editor-at-large At Bild, Germany’s Biggest-selling Newspaper
Germany is famous for its Christmas: our lights, our markets, our delicious food — even the brightly decorated Christmas trees we popularised centuries ago.
But, along with the raft of new Covid vaccines, the best Christmas gift any of us could have hoped for is the new Brexit deal between the European Union and Britain.
And the man the continent should be thanking for that is Boris Johnson.
This week, I wrote in my column in the German newspaper Bild that Boris has made world history.
‘Often ridiculed by our opinionated elite as a juggler and joker, he has led his country out of the EU — without being forced into economic self-mutilation,’ I wrote.
‘For years, all supposedly sensible pundits [in Europe] have told us that Brexit spells doom for Britain. Now they have to eat their words.’
Politicians in Germany tend to be efficient but lack sparkle. Our long-standing Chancellor Angela Merkel almost seems to make a conscious effort to seem dull and technocratic, and perhaps this has served her well.
So when someone unconventional appears on the political scene, there is a tendency to write them off as unserious.
Well, never again. Perhaps it is precisely the more eccentric politicians like Johnson — who do not at all resemble the dull, stiff men and women in suits who roam most European corridors of power — that are most likely to achieve the impossible.
Just because someone has tangled hair, is prone to bursting into Latin and has a somewhat chaotic private life doesn’t mean they cannot be a statesman of historic importance.
Today, Europeans of all stripes know Boris as the man who stood up to the behemoth that is the European bloc and, against all the odds, won the day for his country.
Of course, it was not all down to him: the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen showed grace and integrity in making the French climb down from some of their more preposterous demands, while Mrs Merkel and our unsung foreign minister, Heiko Maas, also played key parts in helping to bring off the deal.
Britain was also blessed by a brilliant negotiating team led by Lord (David) Frost, who never left Brussels in doubt that he was willing to walk away from the talks.
Those of us who believe Britain made the right choice in leaving the EU were tickled when we heard how Lord Frost tended to infuriate his erstwhile opponent, the Frenchman Michel Barnier, by referring to the EU as ‘your organisation’.
‘Perhaps it is precisely the more eccentric politicians like Johnson — who do not at all resemble the dull, stiff men and women in suits who roam most European corridors of power — that are most likely to achieve the impossible,’ said Alexander Von Schoenburg
German EU diplomats told me they would be in stitches whenever Frost drove Barnier up the wall like that.
Yet we must not ignore the fact that this historic deal could have come about only under a British Prime Minister who refused to be bullied by Brussels — as, I’m afraid to say, his two predecessors were.
Boris’s approach was unique. Surely no prime minister in modern history would have dared to inflame negotiations so deliberately by threatening, as Johnson did in September, to break international law and renege on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement signed last year.
Five former PMs — every surviving one, indeed — were roused to indignant fury at the prospect.
Yet that may have been the decisive moment that helped to unlock the terrible stasis in Brussels — and bring both sides back to the table.
After years of docile, easily intimidated UK premiers, the Brussels machine realised for the first time that it was dealing with a government deadly serious about defending British sovereignty.
Boris knew that most British people, proud of Westminster as the cradle of parliamentary democracy, would simply not accept surrendering their Parliament’s independence to an assembly elected under dubious regulations in Strasbourg.
Alexander Von Schoenburg said: ‘Boris’s approach was unique. Surely no prime minister in modern history would have dared to inflame negotiations so deliberately by threatening, as Johnson did in September, to break international law and renege on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement signed last year’
I was there when your Prime Minister came to Berlin on a swelteringly hot day in August 2019. With the rest of the German press pack, I stood in the Chancellery to see him be greeted by Mrs Merkel.
It was clear that many of my fellow reporters had been briefed to watch out for mishaps: most were desperate to accuse Boris Johnson of some faux pas or to quote some remark that could be branded as ‘insensitive’ (and it’s true that Boris did serve up a few of those during his stint as Foreign Secretary).
Yet the moment that all of us remember to this day was how deftly he dealt with Mrs Merkel. At the press conference that afternoon, Boris said he would do all it took to bring about an orderly Brexit.
Then he glanced over to Mrs Merkel and said in almost accent-free German: ‘Wir schaffen das!’ (‘We can do it!’)
Our Chancellor’s smile dropped.
That little repetition of her most famous remark made at the height of the refugee crisis five years ago — during which she pledged to find a way to incorporate the huge numbers of migrants entering Europe — duly hit the spot and the headlines, and made his point perfectly.
‘Boris knew that most British people, proud of Westminster as the cradle of parliamentary democracy, would simply not accept surrendering their Parliament’s independence to an assembly elected under dubious regulations in Strasbourg,’ said Alexander Von Schoenburg
Mrs Merkel, he was saying, had shown she was willing to act unconventionally by opening her country’s borders. So why not craft a deal that created a special bond between Britain and the EU without forcing the former to be tethered to the latter’s laws?
To this day, in common with much of Europe, Germany’s Left-wing media deplores Britain’s departure, even as it grudgingly welcomes the deal Johnson has brokered.
I invariably try to explain that Brexit has always been a question of when, not if.
Boris was right to call the EU a respectable project created by honourable men who were determined never again to wage war against each other.
But within that noble and blameless ambition has always been the implicit drive to integrate ever further — and ultimately make Europe’s internal borders blur into one other.
In the end — as Germany’s most respected politician today, Wolfgang Schaeuble, the President of our Bundestag Parliament, admits — the urge is to align fiscal and budget policies.
This will centralise the EU to such an extent that not only separate national governments, but even the nations themselves will become a thing of the past, at least in all practical and legal senses.
That is the final meaning of the ‘ever-closer union’ to which the British could not and would never agree.
Whether or not it is right for Germany, France, Italy and the rest of the EU27 is one thing: but it is wholly irreconcilable with the British idea of sovereignty — based on your position as an island and also (in the case of England) as a geopolitical entity unconquered for almost a millennium.
Part of Boris Johnson’s historic triumph may have been to help the rest of Europe to understand all this.
By enhancing our knowledge in this way, perhaps he has taught us an important lesson — and given us a Christmas gift of sorts, too.
And though I could offer him some of my country’s famous stollen cake in return, to tell the truth I’ve always preferred your own Christmas pudding.
So next year, I’ll be putting one of those on my family’s table. And I’ll be glad it will have crossed the border thanks to a successful, free-trading partnership between your country and mine.
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