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'Brexit Day' brings personal triumph for UK's Boris Johnson

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures during a meeting with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at 10 Downing Street, London on January 21, 2020.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures during a meeting with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at 10 Downing Street, London on January 21, 2020. © Henry Nicholls/AFP

After more than three years of hesitations and delays, Britain officially left the European Union on Friday. On this day of triumph for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the former journalist saw his dream finally coming true after more than 20 years pushing his eurosceptic views.

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When first arriving at 10 Downing Street, the UK's prime minister vowed to deliver Brexit and on Friday, at 11pm UK time, the United Kingdom became the first country to ever leave the European Union. In a television address, he predicted the country could make Brexit a "stunning success", which he considered "not an end but a beginning".

"This is his day, Johnson can be proud of respecting the people's choice, of keeping his promises and to succeed where his predecessor Theresa May failed," FRANCE 24's international affairs editor Armelle Charrier said. It is undoubtedly a personal victory for the Conservative leader who has been criticising the EU for almost 25 years.

EU myths on condoms, crisps and sausages

Born in New York in 1964 to a wealthy British family, Johnson spent his early years in Brussels, where his father worked for the EU. Nostalgic for the British Empire's heyday, his obsession with the European institution became public during the 1980s when he first worked for The Times newspaper, from which he was fired for making up a quote.

He then became the Brussels correspondent for the right-wing Daily Telegraph, where he made his name by writing EU myths – exaggerated claims about the EU that might now be called "fake news" and which helped shape the political discourse, according to The Guardian. Many are still listed among the most egregious fictions about the EU

"He never hesitated to distort reality, or even to make up stories painting Europe as an absurd bureaucratic monster," said Jean Quatremer, Brussels correspondent for the French newspaper Libération. According to him, some still remember Johnson's nickname from his Brussels days: "Buffoon".

Standardisation of condom and sausage sizes, of coffins, or a ban on British prawn cocktail-flavoured crisps: Boris Johnson never hesitated to exaggerate during what he later recognised as his "most joyous hours" composing "foam-flecked hymns of hate" to the EU. He then caught the Conservatives' eye, which earned him his first British parliamentary seat in the Tory bastion of Henley, West London, in 2001. It was but the start of an ambitious political career formed from his deep euroscepticism. 

Brexit propeller

In 2008 he was elected mayor of London. After his troubled first years – during which he was sacked from the Conservatives' shadow cabinet for lying about an extramarital affair – Johnson had to soften his hardline opinions in order to lead the multicultural, Labour-leaning metropole.

But the 2016 Brexit referendum revived his obsessions, and gave him an opportunity to lead the Leave campaign.

His Brussels exaggerations were also revived. On his red "Vote Leave" campaign bus, he claimed London was paying £350 million (€416 million) per week to the EU – a figure that was actually £135 million (€178 million), according to the European Commission.

In his highly paid campaign columns for The Daily Telegraph, he insisted that Brexit would not cause any tension with Scotland – whose Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon is now pushing for independence from the UK – or that the British pound would not suffer from the European divorce. In October 2019, however, the currency hit its lowest point in 30 years.

As the Leave campaign won with 51.9% of the vote on June 23, 2016, Johnson himself was destabilised by the unexpected result. He promised that Britain "is part of Europe and always will be". He also reassured Europeans living in the UK that their rights would be "totally guaranteed" and that the country would continue to have access to the single market. 

But in October 2016, The Sunday Times published a column by Johnson, drafted that February but then shelved, in which he suggested staying in the EU would be a "boon for the world" and that Brexit would cause "economic shock". It was just days after he penned the column that he publicly backed Brexit for the first time

From 'buffoon' to statesman

Although many accused him of duplicity, he became then prime minister Theresa May's foreign minister in July 2016. In his two-year stint, questions were raised about his competence, some viewing him as underwhelming and adding confusion to an already much-divided United Kingdom. Nevertheless, he called the divorce with the EU a "manifestation of this country's historic national genius" in a February 2017 speech but suggested Britain should respect European rules on products such as hairdryers and washing machines. 

Disagreeing with May's "moderate" Brexit proposals, Johnson quit the government on July 9, 2018, started campaigning again for a harder Brexit and became prime minister the same month after his predecessor failed to make her way out of the Brexit confusion.

"Without Brexit, he would never have become prime minister," FRANCE 24's Charrier says. "Through Brexit, this ambitious man saw a boulevard opening up in front of him and then got the job done. He took the blows and made everyone believe Brexit would be very brief and that after it, it would be once again the rise of the British Empire."

After just a few months at 10 Downing Street, the man known as "BoJo" went from being a controversial and ridiculed politician to being considered, by some, a true statesman.

"He also managed to speak to a lower class he pampered, paying attention to education and health issues, which lent him some charisma," Charrier said.

With Britain now officially out of the European Union, Johnson has some of his most difficult tasks ahead: bringing together a country divided after years of Brexit debate, facing a bulging agenda of domestic issues and showing he can deliver more than Brexit.

He now also has to negotiate a new trade relationship with Brussels as Britain enters its post-Brexit transition period. The EU is widely expected to be uncompromising, but Johnson, who has always had a flair for creating his own reality, has said it is “very, very, very likely” a deal would be agreed.

This article has been adapted from the original in French by Henrique Valadares.

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