The British foreign secretary was cornered by journalists in a hotel lobby in Rome, where he was speaking on a panel about migration, and was forced to respond to allegations that he personally supported free movement, a view contrary to the official position of Theresa May’s government.
“I’m afraid I said absolutely no such thing,” Johnson said. “What I said very clearly to that group of ambassadors – I think it was at a breakfast – was that immigration had been a good thing for the UK in many respects but it had got out of control and that we needed to take back control.”
He was responding to allegations by four unnamed EU ambassadors that he had made such claims in private and that they were shocked by the government’s apparently “shambolic” approach to the issue.
The controversy has prompted the Liberal Democrat MP Nick Clegg to suggest – if the reports were to be believed – that Johnson, the most ardent supporter of Brexit before the 23 June vote, was “treating voters like fools”.
In his public remarks on migration in Rome, Johnson reiterated the UK’s commitment to European security, saying Britain was still “a part of Europe even if we are leaving the EU”. The foreign secretary made several references, much to the surprise of Italian journalists, to a colourful former Italian “disco dancing socialist” named Gianni De Michelis, who served as Italy’s foreign minister in 1989.
“Twenty years ago he came up with a wonderful idea, which is that all the countries of Europe should pay [a portion] of their GDP to the north Africa area ... to promote economic growth,” Johnson said. “All I can ask now is what state would we be in now [if that had happened],” he asked, saying it might be time to reconsider the strategy.
Later he said there was probably no political will to take such a step and that the UK “spends what we can”.
When the floor was handed over to another panelist, Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European commission, Johnson was commended on his statement that the UK would remain part of Europe. “Whether in the EU or out of the EU, Britain belongs to Europe in many, many ways. And by the way, if on second thought, you might reconsider, I can assure you, you will be welcomed back by 500 million Europeans to stay or come back.”
Johnson replied: “We are not leaving Europe.”
Author: Stephanie Kirchgaessner