Boris Johnson says Britain not abandoning 'leading role' in Europe

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Boris Johnson says Britain not abandoning 'leading role' in Europe

Brussels (AFP) - New British foreign minister and top Brexit backer Boris Johnson pledged Monday Britain would continue to play a leading role in Europe as he met his European Union peers in Brussels for the first time.

The normally ebullient Johnson was on his best behaviour after infuriating his partners in the run-up to the referendum by comparing the EU's ambitions for closer European integration to Adolf Hitler's.

"We have to give effect to the will of the people and leave the European Union but... we are not going in any way to abandon our leading role in European participation," Johnson told reporters.

He said he had had a "very good conversation" on the subject with EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini late Sunday -- although his dinner with her was called off after his plane had to make an emergency landing.

"I am very much looking forward to meeting my colleagues," he added.

Johnson was a key player in the June 23 Brexit referendum and his appointment last week stunned many in Europe, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault saying he had lied to voters during the campaign.

- France 'frank' with Britain -

Mogherini, arriving just after Johnson, said the two had had "a good exchange on the main issues on the agenda today."

She refused to be drawn on Britain's negotiations for its departure from the bloc, which EU leaders insist can only start once London invokes Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty to trigger the divorce.

Britain remains a member of the EU until those negotiations are completed, she added.

Ayrault, speaking separately, said he had had a "frank and useful" phone conversation with Johnson.

"There are lots of things to work on with Britain, I will always talk to Boris Johnson with the greatest sincerity, the greatest frankness, I think it's like that we have to move on," he told reporters.

At the same time, he repeated French calls for Britain to launch the Article 50 negotiations as soon as possible so as to end the uncertainty.

New British Prime Minister Theresa May says she will likely do that at the end of this year or early in 2017 but not before London has worked out what sort of future relationship it wants with the other 27 EU members.

The foreign ministers' meeting was overshadowed by the failed military coup in Turkey and last week's deadly attack in Nice, the third major terror incident in France since 2015.

US Secretary of State John Kerry went into the talks without comment but Turkey is a key NATO ally for the United States and a major player for both Washington and Brussels as they keep a wary eye on increasing turmoil in the Middle East.

- Trepidation over Johnson -

Johnson's arrival was awaited with some trepidation given his role in the Brexit referendum and his reputation for quips and bon mots which have often landed him in hot water.

The former mayor of London and one-time schoolmate of former premier David Cameron is well known in Brussels where he worked in the 1990s as the Daily Telegraph's EU correspondent.

His critics accuse him of beating up his stories to play to the eurosceptic gallery at home.

Officials in Brussels stressed they would welcome Johnson as they would any new foreign minister but there is little doubt his Brexit role ruffled feathers.

Johnson was supposed to have met all his EU colleagues on Sunday for an informal dinner but several member states objected, saying it would amount to "informal talks" with London before it had triggered Article 50, one European diplomat said.

Johnson's influence in the Brexit process may be limited however as May has named leading Conservative eurosceptic David Davis as special minister for Brexit.