According to footage that emerged on Wednesday, Johnson was confronted about his choice of language by Anna Maria Corazza Bildt during a panel discussion on the future of the west.
“I would like to tell the foreign minister of the UK that the word liberation in the history of Europe has a very strong meaning,” she said, to some applause. “In these challenging times talking about liberating Britain from the European Union is just bad taste.”
A uncomfortable looking Johnson responded: “I say, come on. I have to say, I hesitate to accuse you of pomposity, but the word liberation clearly means ... it’s etymologically equivalent to being freed, and I’m afraid it’s an undeniable fact that we, the UK, has been unable to do, to run its own trade policy for 44 years.
“We now have an opportunity to do exactly that. I think people should be very proud and very excited by that and that is exactly what we are.”
Warming to his theme, Johnson told Bildt: “And I want to reclaim the English language, if I may. There is absolutely no reason why I should not use the word ‘liberation’ to refer to our ability to take back control of our tariff schedules in Geneva and do our own free trade deals. And I’m sorry, but I’m going to disagree with you emphatically.”
The MEP responded: “We are neither occupying you or a prison.”
Last month, Downing Street had to come to the defence of the foreign secretary after he warned the French president, François Hollande, to not “administer punishment beatings” in the manner of “some world war two movie”, in response to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
The former education secretary Michael Gove also defended Johnson against those who criticised his use of second world war terminology in criticising Hollande. He described it as a “witty metaphor”.
However, Johnson’s comments came only 24 hours after the prime minister, Theresa May, had reminded her cabinet ministers in her Lancaster House speech to show restraint by warning “any stray word” could make securing a Brexit deal more difficult.
Author: Daniel Boffey