Europe is genuinely worried about Britain In May 2016, Boris Johnson took to the stage at Vote Leave headquarters in London to make the case that Brexit was neither a right-wing endeavor nor, as critics said, one that would rob young Britons of freedoms and opportunities the European Union provided. Instead, Johnson cast Brexit as the true “great project of European liberalism” and “liberal cosmopolitan European enlightenment,” whereas the E.U. stood for the “ancien regime.” “We will be vindicated by history,” Johnson said at the time, one month before the country voted to leave the E.U. It remains to be seen what Johnson’s place in political history will be, but so far he has hardly looked victorious. Within only a few weeks as prime minister, he has already lost the first series of key votes in Parliament, his parliamentary majority, the goodwill of Conservative Party moderates — including his own brother — and the patience of E.U. leaders. He may still be able to avoid becoming one of the shortest-serving prime ministers in U.K. history by regaining the upper hand in a potential snap election, but some of the fallout of his recent moves appear more difficult to reverse: A perception at home and abroad that British democracy is now itself at stake. In Europe, the project Johnson heralded as the true expression of “liberal cosmopolitan European enlightenment” is increasingly seen as a troublesome case study for how quickly liberal democracy’s lights can start to flicker. Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks and suggestions that he could ignore a law requiring him to seek a deadline extension to avoid a no-deal Brexit have both raised alarm bells in European capitals. By comparing Johnson to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — who has faced criticism for expanding government control over the judiciary, the press and academia — Austrian newspaper Der Standard was among the more fretful voices. “Johnson and his henchmen clearly think Brexit is more important than democracy and the rule of law,” the paper’s London correspondent, Sebastian Borger, wrote. Germany’s international public broadcaster DW was more blunt. “Boris Johnson, the UK dictator,” blared the headline of an opinion piece by the network’s senior European correspondent, Barbara Wesel. The bemused undertone that previously accompanied some European commentary on the Brexit chaos is gone. Suspending Parliament in the way Johnson did, wrote political scientist Yascha Mounk in France’s Le Monde newspaper, constituted the “most flagrant attack on democracy that Britain has ever known.” If populism blighted “the most entrenched of democracies,” said an editorial in the French paper, it “would be terrible news for the entire continent.” The underlying fear is that there is very little E.U. members can do at this point to bail Britain out — and even if they tried, they might end up making matters worse. Members of the European Parliament may officially condemn Johnson’s move to suspend the British Parliament this week, according to a draft resolution seen by Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine. But most other routes appear closed, amid the possibility of a looming no-deal Brexit. Threatening Britain with some of the potentially more effective measures the bloc has deployed against increasingly illiberal member states Hungary and Poland — including lawsuits and sanctions procedures — would take far too long. Apart from the time frame, even the mere possibility of such measures being triggered could play into the hands of E.U. opponents in Britain, who have long rallied against E.U. interference in national politics. The sight of Westminster in deep chaos may still have an impact in Europe, however, where concerns over Britain’s rule of law and democracy might end up strengthening the argument for a strong E.U. The E.U. has previously been criticized for being too weak on member states that violate democratic values. Recently, however, the bloc’s institutions appear to have “woken up to threats to democracy,” the executive director of Berlin-based NGO, Democracy Reporting International, Michael Meyer-Resende, wrote this summer, welcoming more assertive E.U. moves against Poland. Ironically, popular support for the E.U. in member states that were recently sued by the E.U. remains far higher than in Britain; in Poland, approval still exceeded 70 percent last year. But those numbers don’t ensure that the E.U. will prevail over governments willing to bend the rules of democracy. Some E.U.-proponents fear that a public discourse on Brussels that has little resemblance to reality — stirred by politicians fed up with E.U. rules — could eventually shift opinions in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere. The prime example of this is Britain. When Johnson was still the Telegraph newspaper’s Brussels correspondent, his “Brussels-bashing stories shaped British politics,” the Guardian recently concluded in an analysis.
Among Britain’s E.U.-skeptics, the tales from Brussels — circulated by Johnson and others — were widely deployed in public discourse, even as they drew comparisons with fiction literature in Europe.
“When we read [Johnson’s] articles, we always felt he had been to a different event from the one we were at,” former German TV correspondent Rolf-Dieter Krause told the Guardian.
As a politician, Johnson is now once again accused of creating false narratives that resonate domestically, but make an unwarranted mockery of democratic institutions and processes — with potentially dire results. During the May 2016 speech, Johnson suggested that one of the reasons E.U. democracy was not working was that “there is simply no common political culture in Europe; no common media, no common sense of humor or satire; and — this is important — there is no awareness of each other’s politics.”
His European critics would beg to differ: The one who lacks awareness of their politics, they say, is in fact Johnson himself. When he claimed last week that Brexit negotiations were showing signs of progress, European politicians interviewed by my colleague Michael Birnbaum were once again baffled by Johnson’s approach.
“He’s totally unrealistic. He’s saying if you don’t do what I say, I’ll commit suicide. There are no negotiations with this government,” said Anne Mulder, a Dutch lawmaker. “Perhaps it’s for domestic use. But everybody reads the British papers."