Brussels chuckles as reality hits mythmaker

Sarah Helm
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:25
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IT'S ALL Boris's fault. That's what many say in Brussels. Ayoung journalist called Boris Johnson came to town one day as Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, and single-handedly launched the tide of Euro- phobia in Britain. He made things up, they claim, and his writings fed the far-right with material to launch their crusade against the Brussels plot to rule the world.

The ghost of Boris Johnson, who has now moved on to greater things, still haunts the European Commission press room. And this week there were wry smiles from his old Brussels adversaries, who relished the fact that Boris had himself become the target of the British tabloid press, after a newspaper highlighted his friendship with the convicted fraudster Darius Guppy, his Eton and Oxford contemporary.

"We told you so. A dangerous weapon," say those in Brussels who like to demonise Boris, just as they claim he used to demonise them. The relationship between Boris and Brussels is enlightening. It reveals how unkindly the Brussels machine may turn on those who do not conform to consensus Euro- journalism. It shows the defensiveness of the institutions Johnson prowled. But it also raises questions about the true motivations of a Eurosceptic.

In the early 1990s, ahead of Maastricht, the right-wing sceptics in Britain hungered for reports of evil doings, and - cometh the hour, cometh the hack - there was Boris Johnson. Young, shuffling, affable and sharp.

On his wall in Brussels Johnson kept a memo from Max Hastings, editor of the Daily Telegraph, urging him to "be more pompous" in his writing. His articles were often more irreverent than pompous. "Threat to British pink sausages" was one headline. Or: "EC cheese row takes the biscuit." Headlines talked of Delors "plots" being "hatched" and "traps" being laid for Britain.

As Johnson's stories piled up so did his critics in Brussels. "It was obvious he was under clear instructions to rubbish what we were doing here," says one senior official.

As Johnson filed away, other papers began to imitate the style, if less authoritatively, and the concept of the "Euro-myth" was born. The Daily Star was soon running stories about the EC ordering fishermen to wear hairnets and other tabloids reported that double-decker buses were to be abolished. The stories were traded around Eurosceptic MPs in Westminster and the phobia took hold.

Then came Johnson's biggest scoop of all. "Delors plan to rule Europe", ran a front-page headline in the Sunday Telegraph in May 1992. The story ran just before the Danish referendum on the Maastricht treaty, and is widely believed to have brought about the Danish "no". In the piece Johnson reported on Delors' plans to strengthen further the Brussels institutions, bringing more political power to the European Union after Maastricht.

Charles Grant, author of a Delors biography, says the article may have changed the course of European history. Officials today, however, say the story was based on thin ideas floated at a casual briefing. Johnson, however, retorts: "I always reported things as I saw them, without being hoodwinked by either side." He argues that in Brussels ideas often become plans, and indeed his article chimes with many of the EU plans today.

Eton and Oxford he is, but Johnson is not particularly "British" and his relationship with Brussels is complex. His family background is cosmopolitan, and somewhat rootless. Born in the US, he has a French and an American grandmother and a Turk for a great grandfather.

His full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel. His father, Stanley Johnson, was a senior EC official and an MEP, and Boris went to the European School in Brussels before going to Eton. In many ways, therefore, he is a Brussels insider.

For someone whose identity is defined as much by Brussels as by Westminster, his zealous concern for British national sovereignty seems strange to some. Some would say his interest with Brussels is more of an obsession. Curiously, Johnson himself tried to become an MEP after leaving his job as a correspondent.

To a degree the resentment Johnson built up within the EU institutions is unsurprising. "It was the sharp lawyer syndrome. He gave things a significance they didn't have," said one observer. It is pointed out rather snidely that both Boris and his father have done very well out of Brussels. Boris launched his career by sniping at its deficiencies, while Stanley worked in the institutions for 20 years, and then took a good pay-off from the European taxpayer, with early retirement.

Officials are clearly frustrated by their inability to respond effectively to the British right-wing press. "We answer them but the trouble is our answers aren't funny," said a senior Eurocrat.

Whether Boris Johnson changed the course of European history is debatable. What is sure is that the EU is now readier to reply, with a whole office dedicated to countering Euro-myths. A spokesman said: "We put out 134 press releases this year and killed two myths this week."

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