BRUSSELS - For European leaders watching Theresa May’s political death throes, a sense of inevitability has been replaced by one of fear.
Rather than break the deadlock over Brexit, the departure of the British prime minister raises the prospect of what they’ve long considered their worst nightmare: a U.K. run by Boris Johnson, the man many inside the European Union blame for causing the mess with his campaign based on false promises and then by undermining his leader.
If May was predictable and her strategy clear, albeit flawed, many EU chiefs think of Johnson as a lying populist who wants to destroy the bloc. Privately, officials use his name as shorthand for a British government that would deliver, in their eyes, the most economically catastrophic form of Brexit — one without a U.K.-EU deal to smooth the departure.
As recently as April, when EU governments were discussing whether to allow the U.K. to postpone its exit from the EU, officials in Brussels talked about ensuring they could “Boris-proof” the decision to prevent him disrupting EU business should he become premier.
Their concerns are long-held. In the month before the referendum on EU membership in June 2016, world leaders including then- U.S. President Barack Obama and then-British Prime Minister David Cameron were gathering for a Group of Seven summit in Japan. In Britain, Johnson, a former mayor of London, was campaigning to leave the EU with his red bus emblazoned with the now discredited message that the U.K. sent £350 million ($443 million) a week to the EU that could instead be spent on hospitals.
In the corridors of the summit, Johnson’s name was mentioned several times, a person familiar with the meeting said. Diplomats from across Europe were worried that his Brexit message was hitting home.
From Japan, Martin Selmayr, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s chief of staff and now the executive’s most senior civil servant, tweeted his worst-case prediction for the following year’s summit. He grouped Johnson with Donald Trump and leaders of French and Italian populist movements. “G7 2017 with Trump, Le Pen, Boris Johnson, Beppe Grillo?” he said. That’s the “horror scenario.”
With the EU sticking to its policy of a united front and isolating a belligerent, Brussels now faces a U.K. spiraling into deeper political turmoil. Rather than serve as a warning to supporters of nationalist forces across the continent, it’s only emboldened them during pivotal elections to the European Parliament.
Indeed, the Brexit Party founded by arch euroskeptic Nigel Farage was leading opinion polls before the British vote held on Thursday. Results are due Sunday.
“In hindsight, failing to rebut the claim that the U.K. sent £350 million per week to Brussels without drawing any benefit was a mistake,” Juncker told Austria’s Der Standard newspaper earlier this month. “So many lies were told.”
Although the EU’s worst fears weren’t realized in 2016 when, following Cameron’s resignation, Johnson failed in his bid to become leader, officials considered his appointment by May as foreign secretary nearly as dangerous. Several spoke privately at the time of their concerns that he would wreak havoc at meetings with his EU counterparts.
“During the campaign, he told a lot of lies to the British people,” France’s foreign minister at the time, Jean-Marc Ayrault, told Europe 1 radio shortly after Johnson’s appointment.
In response to accusations made by EU officials and politicians, a person close to Johnson said he wouldn’t get involved in name-calling or talking ill of European allies. He wants the best for the U.K.
The characterization in Europe of Johnson as untrustworthy is a common theme. It’s not helped by his period as Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph between 1989-1994. Then, he earned a reputation for whipping up euroskeptic sentiment with headline-grabbing stories that weren’t always credible. More recently, the Independent Press Standards Organization, a U.K. body monitoring newspapers and magazines, upheld a complaint that Johnson had inaccurately reported polling support for a “no-deal” Brexit in an opinion piece for the Telegraph published in January. He angered European governments further when, in 2016, he likened the EU’s ambitions to Adolf Hitler’s attempt to dominate the continent.
Speaking at a conference in Switzerland on Friday, Johnson set out what his Brexit strategy might be: He would prepare for no-deal, try to renegotiate the much-hated “backstop” for the Irish border, and make clear he’s prepared to leave without a deal if Brussels says “no.”
“To get things done you need to be prepared to walk away,” Johnson said.
The EU has said many times that it won’t countenance changing the backstop. There will be few, if any, new concessions from the European side if Johnson becomes prime minister, an EU official said.
His reputation will make negotiating with him very difficult, other officials said. The main reason why the EU wanted May to stay in the post until the negotiations were complete was that they knew where she stood and they understood her strategy.
Brexit diplomats have already discussed how to confront a Johnson premiership, according to one EU official. He is likely to stiffen the EU’s resolve to refuse to reopen discussions on the deal and could make EU leaders less likely to agree to postpone Brexit still further, the official said.
Ironically, that could make the “no-deal” Brexit that EU officials fear Johnson wants, a more likely outcome, the official said.