LONDON (AFP) - British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Thursday (July 14) that quitting the EU did not mean “leaving Europe”, as he brushed off criticism of his appointment in Prime Minister Theresa May’s new Brexit government.
“On Europe clearly we have to give effect to the will of the people in the referendum, but that does not mean in any sense leaving Europe,” said Johnson, who led the victorious campaign to leave the bloc last month.
May became prime minister late on Wednesday after David Cameron stepped down in the wake of the June 23 vote, which sent shockwaves around the world and sparked fears of an economic downturn as Britain potentially closes off its biggest market.
After six years as Cameron’s interior minister, she was viewed as a safe pair of hands to replace him, but began with a ruthless cull of some of her former Cabinet colleagues.
She removed long-serving finance minister George Osborne and Brexit campaigner and justice secretary Michael Gove – and stunned onlookers by giving Johnson the diplomatic brief.
The former London mayor is popular in Britain and well-known abroad – not least for a colourful use of language regularly directed at foreigners, including White House hopeful Hillary Clinton and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Speaking to reporters outside the Foreign Office, Johnson shrugged off the idea that his appointment was controversial.
“After a vote like the referendum result on June 23, it’s inevitable that there is going to be a certain amount of plaster coming off the ceilings in the chancelleries of Europe,” Johnson said.
He also dismissed comments by French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault that he had “lied a lot” during the Brexit campaign, saying he had just received a “charming letter” from his French counterpart.
Controversy over Johnson’s appointment overshadowed the first day of May’s premiership, which brings some stability after three tumultuous weeks following the EU vote.
European leaders have pressed her to move quickly in implementing Brexit, amid fears of the damage the continued uncertainty could do to the EU and the world economy.
New finance minister Philip Hammond warned Brexit was having “chilling effects” on the financial markets and said business investment decisions were being put on hold.
The Bank of England on Thursday held off on an anticipated cut in interest rates, keeping them unchanged at 0.5 per cent, but signalled a possible cut next month.
The British pound briefly jumped above US$1.34, while London’s FTSE 100 index slid after the bank announcement. Frankfurt’s DAX 30 rallied to its highest point since the Brexit vote.
Johnson had appeared destined for the political wilderness after backing out of the contest to replace Cameron as Conservative party leader. He said he was “humbled” at his appointment – his first ever ministerial post.
British and European media reacted with incredulity to the news, noting he had once described Clinton as a “sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”, and compared the EU’s ambitions for closer integration to Hitler’s.
Others noted that he will not be in charge of EU exit negotiations – and may still yet prove himself.
“He’s got some apologies to make, but as the UK’s salesman, he’ll do a stand-up job,” said Simon Usherwood, senior politics lecturer at the University of Surrey.
Johnson received a call from US Secretary of State John Kerry, where they “pledged to work closely together as Nato allies”, State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
Kerry also “stressed US support for a sensible and measured approach to the Brexit process”, he said.
Johnson added that the US diplomat had expressed a desire for “more Britain abroad, a greater global profile. And I think we now have the opportunity to achieve that”.
May had personally campaigned to stay in the EU but confirmed that “Brexit means Brexit” by appointing two arch eurosceptics to her cabinet.
David Davis has been put in charge of exit negotiations as new Brexit minister, while Liam Fox has responsibility for negotiating new trade agreements outside the bloc.
EU leaders, still reeling from Britain’s decision to become the first country to leave the bloc in its 60-year history, pressed May for a quick divorce.
May’s first calls after taking over late Wednesday were to Europe’s top two powerbrokers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.
Hollande “reiterated his wish for the negotiations on Britain’s departure from the European Union to be undertaken as soon as possible”, his office said.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the vote “has created a new situation which the United Kingdom and the European Union will have to address soon”.
May’s spokesman said she had emphasised in the phone calls, which also included Irish premier Enda Kenny, that she would implement the referendum decision.
But she “explained that we would need some time to prepare for these negotiations”.