Is Europe scared of Boris Johnson becoming prime minister?
For weeks, since the beginning of Brexit talks with Britain, Michel Barnier’s EU negotiation team has entered dialogue with incredible nonchalance and apparent disinterest.
Just days ago, they were refusing to talk to Brexit Minister David Davis and his Downing Street team altogether until the UK’s exit bill had been totted up.
But Boris has caught their attention – and suddenly Brussels has found its tongue.
Calls for BoJo to be sacked from Theresa May’s cabinet have emerged from across the bloc.
Furious MEPs have insisted he must be dismissed.
Italian newspaper La Stampa attended the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester this week.
Its correspondent described how Boris had the room in the palm of his hand – unlike tragic Theresa who coughed her way through her speech, as the stage fell apart behind her.
“The room erupts in roaring laughter, Johnson knows how to pluck the right strings,” the paper said, describing the foreign secretary’s conference speech.
“His speech is a crescendo, flying high, his commentators reproach him for a lack of tangibility and for his incoherence when it comes to discussing politics, not domestic politics but abroad.”
European politicians have sought to undermine him at every turn, and ensure he is made to look like a playground politician.
The German leader of the largest political grouping in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber, called on May to sack the blond bombshell.
“The question for the moment is who shall I call in London [on Brexit]?” Weber asked assembled MEPs.
“Who speaks for the British government – Theresa May, Boris Johnson, or even David Davis?”
Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt has mercilessly mocked May and the “backstabbing” in her cabinet.
“I think she chose Florence [in which to deliver her speech] because Florentine politics in the 15th century made her feel at home,” he said.
“Backstabbing, betrayal, noble families fighting for power... It is an environment that she recognized fairly well.”
Although Brussels gives the impression it is laughing at Boris, sources inside the EU say he is being taken extremely seriously.
“People say, ‘It’s just Boris being Boris,’ but he is a senior member of her government and might be her successor,” an EU source told the Times.
“We have to take him seriously, even if Brits don’t.”
Boris has got their attention for a number of reasons – including his 4,000 word Brexit ‘vision’ that appeared in the UK press in September.
The difference between him and Davis is Boris knows what he wants – he has a clear plan – and he is not afraid to share it.
1. Divorce bill
The EU wants the UK to pay up to £60 billion (US$78.5 billion) to settle commitments up to 2020.
The so-called ‘Brexit bill’ is one of the most contentious issues in divorce talks between London and Brussels.
Boris said the EU can “go whistle” and the UK could pay the bill it believes is fair.
2. Transition period
Johnson has said he is “impatient” and wants to leave Europe as soon as he can.
However, the minister is in favor of a transition period, to ensure a smooth break.
3. Single market access
Johnson would rule out single market access and would have Britain leave the customs union, as well as the European Court of Justice.
However, the foreign secretary said he would pay for things Britain needs – after regaining roughly £350 million per week.
“What I have always said is that we will pay for things that are reasonable, scientific programs,” he said.
“But when it comes to paying for access to the market, that won’t happen any more than we would expect them to pay us for access to our market.”
Talented migrants and workers should be attracted to the UK, Johnson said.
“We will have an immigration policy that suits the UK, not slamming the door but welcoming the talent we need, from the EU and around the world.
“Of course we will make sure that business gets the skills it needs, but business will no longer be able to use immigration as an excuse not to invest in the young people of this country."
Boris isn’t making his stand alone. He counts the backing of a number of potential Tory allies, including rising star Jacob Rees-Mogg.
In a recent YouGov poll Johnson emerged as Tory members’ top choice to succeed May.
While many may not share his vision – at least they know what it is.
He may have been described as a Brexit bungling ball of buffoonery by bureaucrats around the bloc. But Johnson is a man with a plan, and Brussels knows it.