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German leaders equivocal about Boris Johnson

Rob Mudge
July 24, 2019

International reactions to Boris Johnson becoming the UK's new prime minister have been mostly positive so far. But what do politicians and business leaders here in Germany think?

Boris Johnson at a Conservative leadership hustings
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/PA Wire/D. Lawson

Notwithstanding Germany's steadfast refusal to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the EU, German politicians are first and foremost stressing the importance of their country's friendship and partnership with the UK. Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats (CDU) said she was looking forward to a good working relationship with Boris Johnson. "Our countries will continue to be bound by close friendship in the future."

Taking to Twitter, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of the Social Democrats (SPD), the junior partner in Germany's coalition government, wrote that Britain would continue to be a close friend of Germany "Great Britain is and remains part of Europe, a close partner and friend of Germany," adding that he and Johnson had enjoyed a trusting relationship when they worked together as foreign ministers. "Good luck, Boris!" he wrote.

There was also support from the leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Party chief and parliamentary leader Alexander Gauland said Johnson had won a "strong mandate to get Brexit done decisively." His co-parliamentary leader, Alice Weidel, said she was confident that Johnson "will be able to overcome the impasse over Brexit that has dragged on for years." She blamed the EU for showing a lack of compromise which, she said, would ultimately result in a no-deal Brexit. "The EU grandees now have the prime minister they deserve."

'Not easy to work with'

However, others, like Jürgen Hardt, the CDU's foreign policy spokesman, may need more convincing.

"Boris Johnson is certainly not an easy partner (to work with)," he told DW. "He has a strong personality. Having said that I don't think he's got this far only to throw it all away in a short space of time, which is why he'll want to avoid a snap election and will have to deliver a Brexit deal that the British public can live with."

Hardt also stressed that Johnson would have to move on from his preelection rhetoric and try to bridge the seemingly irreconcilable gap between no-deal supporters and those who want to leave with a deal. "He'll need plenty of creativity for that. But there are other EU-UK and German-UK issues where we need Johnson and the UK, for example in foreign policy and security matters, most notably in the current standoff with Iran."

Read moreBoris Johnson's 5 most urgent tasks as UK prime minister

How qualified is Boris?

An anti-Brexit sign reading: the best deal is with EU
Many in Germany hope that a no-deal Brexit can be avertedImage: Getty Images/AFP/B. Stansall

Ralf Stegner, deputy leader of the SPD, also sounded a cautious note. "Johnson belongs to the breed of politicians who say this today and that tomorrow. In this respect, surprises are certainly possible and the majorities in the British Parliament have not changed. They are very critical of it, and rightly so because Brexit would not only be difficult for Europe, but also presumably economically catastrophic for Britain."

Stegner didn't mince his words when asked about Johnson's qualifications as prime minister. "We haven't exactly been spoiled [for choice]," he told DW. "Theresa May didn't achieve much and looking at the US we know that things can always get worse. And my fear is that Johnson falls into that mold. Some of his positions are confused and confusing and in parts even anti-European and I think we'll see him aligning more closely with Donald Trump."

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'Serial liar'

Franziska Brantner, Europe policy spokeswoman for the Green party, was equally scathing in her assessment of how Johnson will handle Brexit. "Johnson has been a serial liar when it comes to Europe so we expect that it will be difficult. We hope that Parliament will be the voice of reason and will prevent a no-deal Brexit," she told DW.

Europeans, she said, needed to stand together to defend the European project. At the same time, she said, the EU was ready to discuss the manner of future relations between the UK and the EU in a fair and open way.

Meanwhile, German business is extremely concerned about the impact of a possible no-deal Brexit. The managing director of the influential Federation of German Industry (BDI), Joachim Lang, warned Johnson about tinkering with the Withdrawal Agreement. "Economies want [Brexit] to be a smooth process and this cannot be a no-deal scenario. So, there is an agreement and it must not be renegotiated."

The impact of Brexit on German-UK trade, he told DW, was already being felt. "The United Kingdom used to be the No. 5 trading partner of Germany. Last year it went down to 6, this year to 7. So, even though Brexit hasn't happened yet, we're already seeing the negative impact."