Whenever Boris Johnson crosses paths with Emmanuel Macron at an international summit, for the ensuing photo opportunity the British Prime Minister tends to strike a Spaghetti Western-style pistols-at-dawn pose. Alternatively, he might charge towards Macron, jutting out his lower jaw like he’s a lager lout about to throw a punch. It’s yet another instance of Johnson’s standard operating mode: continuous clowning around to distract attention from the seriousness of whatever he is involved in. For as long as the cameras are around, the French president manages to look like he finds Johnson’s antics mildly amusing; in private, the two men cultivate a hatred as cordial as it is mutual and cannot find a single clod of common ground.
Their characters are as incompatible as their countries are comparable – and it’s hard to grasp the former without understanding the latter. Yes, France and Britain are two old empires plagued by nostalgia for their long-past periods as hegemons; both are military – and nuclear – powers with seats on the United Nations Security Council and large-scale diplomatic machineries; they are, in terms of their geographical situation, demographics and per-capita GDP, more than broadly similar. And not unimportantly, neither France nor Britain is without a certain arrogance and belief in its own exceptionalism.
With Macron and Johnson, however, the similarities are few and far between. The French premier is as solemn and serious as his British counterpart is extravagant and amoral. It is a mix of geopolitical similarity and personal opposition that makes for a truly explosive cocktail. For thus far, the periodic Franco-British crises occurred when the countries’ leaders had a certain level of mutual respect: François Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher may have had fundamental disagreements on the nature of the European budget, Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair on the Iraq War, but they had a mutual esteem. Johnson and Macron have nothing but mutual disdain.
And so you’d have to go a long way back to find a time when these two intimate, eternal enemies, France and Britain, have been in such disagreement on so many issues: there are conflicts over fishing licences, over who is responsible for the migrants in the English Channel, and over the Aukus alliance concluded between Australia, the US, and the UK at the expense of France, which lost a contract to supply submarines to the Antipodean partner in the trio. Indeed, to borrow a naval phrase: it’s panic stations.
Not, of course, that any of these issues would be irresolvable if it weren’t for the elephant in the room: the B-word. This portmanteau of Britain and Exit so studiously avoided is the real reason behind the new diplomatic dispute between the two nations – and there is no way that it can be any different, because both countries’ leaders have, in ways diametrically opposed, set Brexit at the very heart of their strategy. For Boris Johnson, it was his ticket to power. After having argued to such effect that leaving the European Union would be the key to Britain regaining its global standing, he has no choice but to demonstrate that doing so is a success. Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, got himself elected the year after the Brexit referendum in no small part by decrying the nationalism that had led to Britain voting to leave and redoubling France’s European ambitions in face of the shock result. He now has to prove that, as the very antithesis of his politics, Brexit will be a failure.
As such, neither has much to gain from dialling down his intransigence towards the other. For Macron, it’s a matter of fending off the Eurosceptic arguments thrown at him by his principal adversaries on the right ahead of the upcoming presidential election, from Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour on the hard right to the contorted centre-right candidate Valérie Pécresse. For Johnson, maintaining a hard-line vis-à-vis Paris helps to divert public attention away not just from the rampant corruption within his party, but from the succession of government fiascos that all stem from the very Brexit he sold as being the answer to everyone’s problems: the petrol crisis, the supply shortages, the resurfacing of sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland.
Back in 2013, I interviewed Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London. Sitting in his office at City Hall, he said to me: “You won’t find a nest of nuts here for wanting to leave the EU.” Now Johnson has, in order to become Prime Minister, himself become one of these nutcases. For Johnson, being PM was a dream long cherished, from at least back when he and his favourite frenemy David Cameron were careering around the playing fields of Eton playground. And in service of this aim, Johnson has not only endorsed, but come wholly to embody Brexit: he is both its creator and its creature; he is its parent and its offspring; he is the lord and the worshipper – and, of course, both Brexit’s master and its slave. Brexit and Johnson: for better or for worse, the two of them are in it together. He owes everything to Brexit and Brexit owes everything to him, to this man who centred his strategy around lies.
The fundamental promise that got people to vote for Brexit was that by leaving the European Union, Britain would be able to “take back control” of its borders. Immigration? We’ll stop it. If we take people on at all, it will be on our own terms. Not much more was required to get votes from an electorate unsettled by the migrant crisis of 2015 and macerating in the never-ending tabloid mood-music of casual nationalism and British exceptionalism. Farage’s “breaking point” billboards, with hordes of Syrians on their way to invade England, or Johnson’s own (denied) phantasmagoria of unlimited Muslim immigration in the (unlikely) event of Turkey joining the EU: both deliberately conflated EU and non-EU migration. This captured both a febrile public imagination concerned by the idea of millions of Turks and Syrians and widespread opposition to internal EU migration (“the Polish and the Romanians stealing our jobs”).
There’s no need to linger on the fact that, as a member of the EU, Britain was one of the countries most anxious to open up its labour market to the new Europeans from the East; and it would uncharitable to focus too much on the fact that the debilitating staffing shortages affecting Britain are largely due to workers essential to the smooth functioning of hospitals, restaurants, and road haulage returning to their countries of origin in the wake of Brexit. And let’s not dwell on how the PM is now trying and entice them back.
The tragedy of the 27 migrants who drowned in the Channel is a mirror in which Boris Johnson, if he looks into it, may see the truth: that the fundamental promise of Brexit is also his fundamental lie. Leaving the EU has indeed put a stop to EU migration, yet it changes nothing – absolutely nothing – about non-EU migration. Brexit has not widened the Channel, and a Britain “liberated” from the shackles of the European Union now finds itself, more than ever before, having to protect its own borders while respecting the Geneva Convention of 1951 on the treatment of refugees (a convention of which the UK was one of the first signatories). The country has no choice but to take on its share of asylum seekers and can no longer count on the generous Le Touquet accords, nullified by Brexit, in which France agreed to manage the border. And it has to do this while trying to prevent the loss of human life.
So Boris Johnson now finds himself a prisoner of his own original lie. He embodies Brexit, thus he is Brexit. And Brexit is the promise to regain control of borders. In this way, he has no more dangerous a foe than migrants ready to die at sea in order to reach England’s shores. The talk of scaring them back off with armed patrols on jet skis and pointing the finger at France will keep the tabloids happy for a while yet, but will not mask that the British Prime Minister, as he has already amply demonstrated, has no respect for the rule of law, for his own commitments, or indeed for international treaties he himself has signed. In the short term, his crooked methods are proving effective, to a degree. His problem is that the whole world is watching.
Translated from French by Brian Melican
This article was written for the New Statesman based on columns that first appeared in the French magazine L’Express.