Editorial: The Hulk becomes the Invisible Man

British prime minister Boris Johnson and Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel leave their meeting and head straight past waiting journalists on Monday afternoon Jan Hanrion/Maison Moderne

British prime minister Boris Johnson and Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel leave their meeting and head straight past waiting journalists on Monday afternoon Jan Hanrion/Maison Moderne

Boris Johnson’s decision to scuttle away from a scheduled press conference with Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel on Monday afternoon leaves him looking rattled, says Duncan Roberts.

The mood had been set long before British prime minister Boris Johnson arrived at the ministry of state for his appointment with his Luxembourg counterpart. A gathering of protestors, organised ad hoc via Facebook on Friday after Johnson’s visit to the grand duchy was first announced, had been making themselves heard while the media waited patiently for Johnson to come from his lunch with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. The protestors grouped around the statue of Grand Duchess Charlotte on the Place Clairefontaine, chanted “tell the truth, stop the coup” and “don’t take our rights” and sang and played recordings of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, which Europe has adopted as its anthem.

There were cheers for Xavier Bettel and Michel Barnier when the EU’s chief negotiator stopped by for a quick chat with the Luxembourg premier ahead of a meeting with foreign minister Jean Asselborn. But a wave of boos hit Johnson as he arrived and walked across the courtyard, separated from the protestors by the main gate to the ministry, to meet Bettel.

45 minutes later, the two government leaders emerged, and the media prepared to ask their questions. But instead they walked past the press cordons and out of the courtyard. Bettel returned to take the podium alone while Johnson headed over to the British ambassador’s residence. From there his motorcade was seen driving off with a police escort, presumably to the airport, some 20 minutes later.

Meanwhile, a clearly angered Bettel made a statement saying that the protests should be welcomed in a democracy but that all voices, presumably alluding to Johnson, need to be heard. According to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, Johnson’s team had asked for press conference inside--it is customary for Bettel to meet the press in a small media room annex to the ministry--so that the two leaders could be heard over the noisy protest, but that the request was rejected. Earlier a journalist had argued with one of the protest organisers, David Pike, that they should allow Johnson to be heard. Pike responded that they had invited the British prime minister to talk with them, but he had declined. But other British media did question the decision, agreed at the time by Downing Street to hold the press conference in the courtyard, just 20 metres away from the protest.

The good-natured protestors on the Place Clairefontaine on Monday. Photo: Delano

Bettel then launched an attack on the Brexiteers who are trying to blame the European Union and its member states for the lack of a deal that suits them. “We did not choose Brexit,” he said determinedly. “The decision to hold the referendum was taken by the Conservative party alone.”

Asked if the British had presented any concrete plans that could resolve the current impasse, particularly over the backstop, Bettel said, “there is only one deal on the table, and that is the one from last year.” He reiterated the fact that Theresa May’s government had signed the Withdrawal Agreement, and that the UK should therefore not blame the EU for intransigence. Bettel was also adamant that the EU would not accept any proposal that undermines the single market or Good Friday agreement, and underlined its support for Ireland as a member state.

As for Johnson, in an interview with the BBC shot on the balcony of the ambassador’s residence, he said, “I don’t think it would have been fair to the prime minister of Luxembourg [to hold a joint press conference]…clearly there was going to be a lot of noise [from the protest] and I think our points might have been drowned out”.

Then again, he could have stopped to explain that to the media. And, given the protestors’ clear love of Bettel--at one point they were chanting “Xavier! Xavier!” in recognition of all his government had done to assure British residents that their future is safe in Luxembourg--they might even have listened to the Luxembourg prime minister if he had asked them to be respectfully quiet during the press conference.

The result, however, leaves Johnson looking rattled--The Guardian even said he had been “humiliated by the leader of almost the smallest country in the European Union.”