“A journalist-turned-politician, often bending the truth in the process, returns to the scene of his youthful journalistic escapades.”

From a New York Times story by Mark Landler and Stephen Castle headlined “As a Journalist, Boris Johnson Mocked the Eurocrats of Brussels. They Haven’t Forgotten.”:

LONDON — Three decades ago, an enterprising young foreign correspondent named Boris Johnson reported that the European Commission planned to blow up Berlaymont, its hulking, asbestos-riddled headquarters in Brussels. “Sappers will lay explosive charges at key points,” he wrote in The Daily Telegraph.

On Wednesday, Mr. Johnson, now Britain’s prime minister, walked into Berlaymont, still very much standing after a costly renovation, for dinner with the commission’s current president, Ursula von der Leyen. “You run a tight ship here, Ursula,” he said when she ordered him to put on a mask after posing for cameras.

To say the moment was rich in symbolism doesn’t begin to capture the dense layer-cake of metaphors: a journalist-turned-politician, who made his name by ridiculing and deriding the European Union — often bending the truth in the process — returning to the scene of his youthful journalistic escapades, in search of a trade agreement with the European bureaucrats he once mocked.

Ms. von der Leyen served Mr. Johnson pumpkin soup with scallops, steamed turbot with mashed potatoes, and pavlova with exotic fruit for dessert. But she sent him on his way without a breakthrough in the trade talks and served notice that the European Union was not likely to bend.

He seemed to get the message: On Thursday he said there was a “strong possibility” that Britain would leave the European Union without a trade deal.

“What goes around comes around, doesn’t it?” said Sonia Purnell, who worked with Mr. Johnson in The Telegraph’s Brussels bureau in the 1990s and later wrote a critical biography of him. . . .

“He left in 1994 and he’s not been back very much since,” said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, a research institute, who, as a correspondent for The Economist, competed against Mr. Johnson.

“He’s anathema to most E.U. politicians, who see him as personally to blame for Brexit, so he doesn’t have much of a network there,” Mr. Grant added.

Like many of Mr. Johnson’s articles in that era, there was a germ of truth to the one about blowing up Berlaymont. The building was rife with asbestos, and European authorities debated how to handle it. But using troops trained in demolition to wire the building for an explosion was never in the cards, especially since it would only have spread an asbestos cloud around the city (it was renovated instead).

Mr. Johnson took similar liberties with the European Union’s myriad regulations, which he presented as a nanny state dictating the minutiae of daily life. One article was about Europe-wide specifications for condoms; another carried the headline, “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same.”. . .

In the Bildungsroman of Mr. Johnson’s life, his chapter as a journalist in Brussels occupies a particular place. It was there, people who knew him said, that he discovered the intellectual allure of “euroskepticism” and the payoff that came with bashing European institutions. Years later, he likened the experience to “chucking these rocks over the garden wall.”

“I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory Party,” Mr. Johnson told the BBC. “And it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power.”. . .

Mark Landler is the London bureau chief. In 27 years at The Times, he has been bureau chief in Hong Kong and Frankfurt, White House correspondent, diplomatic correspondent, European economic correspondent, and a business reporter in New York.

Stephen Castle is London correspondent, writing widely about Britain, including the country’s politics and relationship with Europe.

Speak Your Mind

*