As most people are aware, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a flying visit to Luxembourg last Monday to discuss Brexit. His trip began with a “working lunch” with Jean-Claude Juncker, the outgoing President of the European Commission President (and former Luxembourgish Prime Minister), and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.
It quickly became known that this lunch was taking place in the “Le Bouquet Garni” restaurant in the city centre and the area was soon flooded with hundreds of members of the Luxembourgish, British and other European press, as well as several curious by-standers. Despite the crowds, the meeting appeared to have gone smoothly – although the European Commission later confirmed that Mr Johnson had still not brought anything new to the table (restaurant pun intended).
Whilst the British Prime Minister and EU officials were supposedly solving Brexit, trouble was brewing for Mr Johnson a mere 200 metres away. From midday, a small but not insignificant group of protesters began to gather in Place de Clairefontaine, the square just opposite the Ministry of State building where Johnson would be meeting his Luxembourgish counterpart (or the Incredible Hulk's nemesis, some might say), Xavier Bettel, for discussions and a press conference later that day.
By the time the clock struck 15:00, the press (myself included) and protesters were patiently awaiting Mr Johnson’s arrival. When he eventually made an appearance, the British Prime Minister was greeted warmly by Xavier Bettel and slightly less warmly by the protesters (around 80 at their peak) beyond the gates - think booing and chanting things like “Hey Boris, leave our rights alone” or “Bog off Boris”. Nevertheless, it was all pretty mild and I’m sure former British Prime Ministers such as Theresa May or Margaret Thatcher had endured worse crowds.
And yet, instead of addressing the press (and protesters) at the scheduled time, Mr Johnson was nowhere to be seen. He had gone into the Ministry with Mr Bettel but there was no indication of when or if he was coming back out. Speculation grew that he had snuck out the back to escape the crowds. In the end, Boris did show his face again, or rather the back of his head, as he hurried out of the Ministry’s grounds to a safe haven that was later revealed as the British Embassy in Luxembourg. His departure was greeted with more booing and chanting, as he left Luxembourg’s Prime Minister alone to address the hundreds of members of press who had travelled far and wide (with the exception of the local press) to hear what both leaders had to say on the development of Brexit negotiations.
This brings us to Xavier Bettel’s infamous speech, which quite a few British papers have branded as an insult to Boris Johnson and thus, apparently, the entire nation. In any case, Instead of turning away the press and protesters who had waited several hours to hear what the two leaders had to say, Mr Bettel went ahead and gave an impassioned and honest speech, which highlighted the frustrations caused by this unresolved Brexit issue and reiterated the EU’s continued commitment to the Irish backstop. He expressed solidarity with the whole island of Ireland and maintained the importance of upholding the Good Friday Agreement. Did he visibly express his frustrations? Yes, but that does not mean that what he said was not absolutely correct. Brexit had been, and still is, a “nightmare” for everyone involved, the UK has yet to offer a suitable alternative to the backstop issue and we are spiralling towards a no-deal scenario on 31 October.
As someone who heard the Luxembourgish Prime Minister’s words first-hand, I was appalled to read the portrayal of events by the British press. I can’t say I was too shocked by tabloid headlines like The Sun’s “Boris dodges ‘ambush’ as EU boss holds press conference next to anti-Brexit mob” or the Daily Mail’s (excessively long) “Fury at Luxembourg PM Xavier Bettel after he 'stitches up' Boris Johnson by holding press conference next to anti-Brexit protesters - and then humiliates him with empty podium when he refuses to take part”. However, even the supposedly more reputable and impartial broadsheets and broadcast media like the BBC and ITV resorted to provocative language; the former’s online headline read “Brexit: Boris Johnson attacked by Luxembourg PM over ‘nightmare’”, whilst the latter’s read “Luxembourg’s PM takes aim at absent Boris Johnson after he dodges press conference”, before opening the article in the first line with “Luxembourg’s prime minister has attacked Boris Johnson for the Brexit “nightmare””. Even The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph had similar headlines, although the former portrayed the British Prime Minister’s in a more negative light in the article itself: “Boris Johnson humiliated by Luxembourg PM at ‘empty chair’ conference” (The Guardian); “Luxembourg laughs in Johnson’s face” (The Daily Telegraph).
Reading these reports after witnessing events first-hand was an eye-opener for me. Sure, I can’t say I was really that surprised, especially after hearing some of the comments of the British press before and during the conference and from what I’ve read throughout this three-year Brexit ordeal. But still, it was as though we had attended two very different events. Yes, it was noisy with the protesters, but the relatively small crowd had promised to quiet down when the two Prime Ministers were speaking (as they did for Bettel), and most had come to hear what Mr Johnson had to say and invited him to hear their own thoughts in return. On top of that, as Xavier Bettel himself said, protesting is our democratic right and the fact that some of the British press called this act of democracy an “ambush”, and some commenters on social media even called it undemocratic to oppose the Brexit vote in this way, is quite frankly both ridiculous and highly ironic.
There have even been accusations that the protest was organised by the Luxembourg Prime Minister himself in an attempt to humiliate his British counterpart! This is ridiculous for many reasons, not least because the protest was organised last-minute (due to very short notice of Boris Johnson’s visit) by members of the public. In fact, it was namely one individual, David Pike, a Canadian, Luxembourgish and British national living in Luxembourg, who set up the protest via a Facebook event (which has since been deleted) over the weekend. Mr Pike, who has since attracted a mixture of praise and abuse (again mostly from the British press), confirmed that Mr Johnson’s visit had not been well-publicised but that, upon hearing the news, he formally contacted the British Prime Minister’s representatives to set up a meeting with Brits living in Luxembourg to hear their side of the story. His requests were refused.
I also got chatting to some of the other protesters beforehand. Most were British expats who had lived in Luxembourg for several years and had been denied the right to vote in the 2016 Brexit Referendum (since they hadn’t lived in the UK for over 15 years), even if Brexit in many ways affects these Brits more than those back home. Despite their (understandable) palpable frustration, the protesters expressed their emotions in a rather peaceful, civilised manner considering the extent of damage Brexit will have on their lives. Adults and children alike waved EU and British flags, there was music and singing and they chanted or held placards saying things like “Tell the truth, stop the coup” or “I’m not your bargaining chip” (my personal favourite was “Prorogue mo thóin”, based on the Irish phrase for “kiss my ass” and alluding to the British Government’s recent proroguing of Parliament). Most just wanted to listen to what the British Prime Minister had to say and, in response, wanted to voice their own opinions on how Brexit will affect them and their families.
Instead, Mr Johnson cancelled his press statement, blaming the noisy protesters. Criticism followed regarding Mr Bettel's choice to go ahead with the conference and refusal to move it inside as requested by his “guest”. Personally, I find these complaints ridiculous. First of all, a lot of preparation had evidently gone into preparing the conference and there simply wasn’t enough space for all the press and electrical equipment inside the Ministry (I can confirm this, having been inside on previous occasions). Secondly, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister traditionally welcomes guests, including high-profile European and international leaders, outside in the courtyard for such press conferences, especially when the weather is as good as it was last week. And thirdly, hundreds of people had travelled and waited hours especially for this event. I for one appreciated Mr Bettel taking the time to address us rather than just sending everyone away.
Did the event result in humiliation for Mr Johnson? Certainly, but he had no one but himself to blame.