‘Cocky troublemaker’: What the German media makes of ‘Brexit Boris’

Boris Johnson is the new UK Prime Minister after winning the Conservative party leadership contest on Tuesday. But he faces an awkward relationship with Germany and the rest of Europe.

'Cocky troublemaker': What the German media makes of 'Brexit Boris'
Boris Johnson, former UK Foreign Minister, with his then German counterpart Frank Walter-Steinmeier in 2016 during a press conference in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Johnson had long been the favourite to win the Conservative leadership race ahead of Jeremy Hunt and will take over as the head of the UK's government on Wednesday.

But the decision will leave many Germans scratching their heads as they wonder how the UK has come to have a leader that leading German news show Tagesschau describe as a “cocky troublemaker”.

In an opinion piece published on Spiegel Online on Tuesday, Jörg Schindler wrote: “He's been dreaming of this for decades.

“But once he enters into his new life as Prime Minister, he will have to stand in front of the door and explain to his compatriots what he actually plans to do. Johnson is set to do that on Wednesday afternoon. And at that moment, he will begin breaking his promises.”

As Johnson, dubbed “Brexit-Boris” by Germany's top selling daily newspaper Bild, prepares to enter 10 Downing Street, commentators in Germany have raised strong doubts over his ability to get the UK out of Brexit deadlock.

The former London mayor has promised to seek a new deal with the EU or leave without an agreement on October 31st, the current scheduled withdrawal date, in what would be a ‘no-deal' Brexit.

READ ALSO: 'A giant liar with a mop of hair': What the French think of Boris Johnson

But the British parliament has rejected a withdrawal deal reached by outgoing PM Theresa May and the EU three times.

Johnson claims he can land a new deal which can pass parliament, but the EU has consistently said the agreement is final and cannot be reopened for further negotiations.

“Europe is in for a turbulent autumn,” wrote Schindler in the latest issue of Spiegel magazine, adding: “Johnson may have inexhaustible charisma, but he doesn't have a plan – only an apparently unshakable belief in himself. But how far will that take him?”

If the words seem a tad harsh then the pictures are even more cutting. On the cover, Johnson has been transformed into Alfred E. Neumann, the fictitious character of the American satirical magazine MAD, a worldwide symbol of boundless stupidity.

Next to it are the words: ‘Mad in England – How Boris Johnson turned the British against Europe.’

“History is repeating itself,” wrote Schindler. “The country that gave birth to modern democracy now seems willing to elect a populist born in New York who has made his peculiar hair his trademark and who, as a member of the elite, is now agitating against them – and who feels like he is destined for greatness.”

Johnson is often compared to the US President in German media.

Bild published a list of things to know about the new British PM, including a bullet point about his “hairstyle-doppelgänger (lookalike)”.

“Johnson not only has the same birthplace as Donald Trump, but also a very similar hairstyle,” Bild wrote. “Both are blond. But while the Trump quiff always stays in place, Brexit-Boris' hair sometimes swirls wildly around.”

A float during Colonge's carnival celebrations depicting Brexit. Photo: DPA

It’s not surprising that EU-bashing Johnson is not particularly well-favoured in Germany, a country where the majority of people are pro-European.

In a commentary piece for Deutsche Welle, Christoph Hasselbach described Johnson, often called BoJo, as a “rogue” and a “foreign object”, saying German politicians are “stunned by the Boris Johnson phenomenon”.

Hasselbach said Theresa May came from a similar political world as German politicians, where reasonable compromises are the norm. Not so for her replacement.

“Boris Johnson is the antithesis, and he makes Berlin politicians as speechless in the same way as Donald Trump,” said Hasselbach. 

Hasselbach wrote that Johnson’s plan for Brexit “will of course go wrong and Britain will remain isolated and impoverished”.

“There is no doubt about that in Germany they are looking forward to the moment when Johnson and the misguided half of the British population will see exactly that,” he added.

Unimaginable in Germany

In fact, the very idea of a person like Johnson gaining such power is unimaginable in Germany, commentators say.

'There could never be a German Boris Johnson’ was the headline of a recent column by journalist Nick Cohen for the Spectator, which was also published in German daily Die Welt.

READ ALSO: 'He looks like a man who slept in his car': What the Danish media thinks of Boris Johnson

“If an ambitious German were to affect the style of a junker, he would be greeted with incomprehension,” Cohen wrote.

“Prussia no longer exists. With the Second and Third Reich, its ruling class discredited and destroyed itself. Britain, by contrast, appears to be a lucky country. Fascists never took power, and its ruling class was never disgraced by collaboration. Communists never took power and seized their wealth. Our old order can still appear cuddly rather than sinister.”

Berlin daily the Tagesspiegel called BoJo “a prime minister without a plan – but with great ambitions”, highlighting his climb to the top.

In the commentary, Albrecht Meier gave a similar damning report to other publications. He said: “The newly inflamed love between the conservative base and the blonde power politician says a lot about the state of British politics.”

Meier said Johnson clearly has no “proper plan” on how the negotiations with the EU over Brexit should be structured. 

“His strategy: hoping for the EU to collapse,” Meier wrote.

It's not just newspapers that have raised concerns about Boris. The centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) poked fun at the politician and Brexit in its campaign ahead of the European Parliament elections which took place in May.

“Brexit?” one of their posters read, with a picture of Johnson dangling in the sky carrying Union Jack flags and looking helpless. “Europe is the answer,” it continues, adding: “Come together.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Green ministers outshine Scholz as stars of German government

Eclipsed by two Green party ministers over his response to the war in Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz is battling to wrest back public approval - starting with a speech to parliament on Thursday.

Green ministers outshine Scholz as stars of German government

Scholz, whose Social Democrats (SPD) are in power with the Greens and the liberal FDP, has faced a barrage of criticism over his perceived weak response to the war, including his hesitancy over sending heavy weapons to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Green party Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Economy Minister Robert Habeck have impressed with their more vocal approach, topping a recent survey of the country’s most popular politicians.

Scholz’s party suffered a crushing defeat in a key regional election at the weekend, losing to the conservative CDU with its worst-ever result in Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

The Greens, meanwhile, almost tripled their score compared with five years ago to finish in third place and look almost certain to be part of the next regional government.

READ ALSO: Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

Der Spiegel magazine called the result a “personal defeat” for Scholz after he was heavily involved in the election campaign, appearing on posters and at rallies.

Already famous for his lack of charisma before he became chancellor, Scholz now appears to be paying the price for dragging his feet in dealing with Moscow over fears of escalating the crisis.

In a bid to win back the public, Scholz has in recent days given lengthy television interviews.

On Thursday, he will be explaining his policy to lawmakers ahead of the EU summit at the end of May.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (m) with ministers (l-r) Svenja Schulze, Annalena Baerbock, Robert Habeck, Cem Özdemir and Christine Lambrecht at a meeting in May 2022.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (m) with ministers (l-r) Svenja Schulze, Annalena Baerbock, Robert Habeck, Cem Özdemir and Christine Lambrecht at a meeting in May 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Sitting tight

In a devastating reading of Scholz’s outings so far, the weekly Focus assessed that “his language is poor, his facial expressions monotone and his body language too understated.”

According to Der Spiegel, the chancellor’s communications strategy seems to revolve around one mantra: “Repeat, repeat, repeat.”

Other media have accused him of stubbornly sticking to the same plan and ignoring what is going on around him.

“His party is plummeting, but the chancellor feels that he has done everything right… Doubts and questions rain down on him, but Olaf simply sits tight,” said Der Spiegel.

Scholz’s spokesman Steffen Hebestreit has defended the chancellor, suggesting that the public value his calm demeanour and would find it “inauthentic” if he tried to turn himself into Barack Obama.

READ ALSO: How war in Ukraine has sparked a historic shift in Germany

But for political scientist Ursula Münch, Scholz does not come across as calm and measured but rather “imprecise” compared with his colleagues from the Green party.

Scholz has also not been helped by the fact that Defence Minister and fellow SPD politician Christine Lambrecht is currently caught up in a storm of criticism for allowing her son to accompany her on a government helicopter on their way to a family vacation.

‘Strong moral underpinning’

Baerbock, meanwhile, has turned around her public image after a series of blunders during the 2021 election campaign, coming across as clearer and more decisive than Scholz in her response to the Ukraine crisis.=

The 41-year-old former trampolinist has become the face of Germany at international summits, from the G7 to NATO, and in early May became the first German minister to visit Kyiv.

Habeck, meanwhile, has impressed with his dedication to weaning Germany off Russian energy.

And their meteoric rise is all the more surprising given the Green party’s traditional positioning as a pacifist party opposed to sending weapons to conflict zones.

For the first time in their 42-year history, according to Der Spiegel, the Greens are being judged not on “expectations and promises” but on their performance in government.

“The strong moral underpinning of the Greens’ policies and the fact they openly struggle with their own principles comes across as approachable and therefore very credible,” according to Münch.

“Of course, this increases their clout compared with the chancellor.”

She therefore predicts an “increase in tensions” between the Greens, the SPD and the FDP, with life not expected to get easier for Scholz any time soon.

By Mathieu FOULKES