Britain to continue 'leading role' in Europe

British Foreign Secretary Mr Johnson (left) with Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders at an EU meeting in Brussels yesterday.
British Foreign Secretary Mr Johnson (left) with Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders at an EU meeting in Brussels yesterday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

BRUSSELS • New British Foreign Secretary and top Brexit backer Boris Johnson has pledged that Britain would continue to play a "leading role" in Europe as he met his European Union peers in Brussels for the first time.

The normally ebullient Mr Johnson was on his best behaviour after infuriating his partners in the run-up to last month's referendum by comparing the European Union's ambitions for closer integration to Adolf Hitler's.

"We have to give effect to the will of the people and leave the European Union but... we are not going in any way to abandon our leading role in European participation," he told reporters yesterday.

He said he had a "very good conversation" with EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini on Sunday, although a dinner with her was called off after his plane had to make an emergency landing.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, attending his first EU foreign ministers' meeting, said Mr Johnson had told his peers that Britain intended to remain a "vital component" of Europe.

Mr Johnson was a key player in the June 23 Brexit referendum and his appointment as foreign secretary last week stunned many in Europe, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault saying that he had lied to voters during the campaign.

Mr Ayrault, speaking on arrival at the talks, said he had a "frank and useful" telephone conversation with Mr Johnson over the weekend.

"There are lots of things to work on with Britain. I will always talk to Boris Johnson with the greatest sincerity, the greatest frankness, I think it's like that we have to move on," he said.

Mr Ayrault repeated French calls for Britain to launch the Brexit negotiations as soon as possible so as to end uncertainty.

New British Prime Minister Theresa May says she will likely do that at the end of this year or early next year, but not before London has worked out what sort of future relationship it wants with the other 27 EU members.

Officials in Brussels stressed that they would welcome Mr Johnson but there is little doubt his Brexit role ruffled feathers. Mr Johnson was supposed to have met all his EU colleagues on Sunday for an informal dinner but several member states objected, saying it would amount to "informal talks" with London before it began formal divorce negotiations, one European diplomat said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline 'Britain to continue 'leading role' in Europe'. Print Edition | Subscribe