By Marcus Tanner
The opening of the London West Balkans Summit was thrown into confusion on Monday as one of its hosts, the UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, dramatically resigned on the morning of the summit – while the other, Prime Minister Theresa May – was locked in a brutal battle for political survival.
Johnson threw in the towel shortly after May secured cabinet approval for the UK to go for a “soft” Brexit – making as few changes with the EU relationship as possible – so angering Johnson and other Conservatives who had demanded a cleaner break.
The tumult in Britain’s ruling party – which could force May into a leadership challenge while propelling Johnson from the government – overshadowed the start of the summit, which had been billed as an opportunity for the UK to show that a post-Brexit Britain would remain closely involved with the Balkan region.
It was now set to open with a deeply distracted PM and an outgoing Foreign Secretary with no further stake in the job. A BBC blog on Monday afternoon said Johnson had yet to turn up at the summit.
This was not the message that the UK had intended when it opted to host the meeting.
“The UK wants a strong, stable and prosperous Western Balkans region. By hosting the summit in London, we demonstrate our continued interest and involvement in the stability of the region beyond our exit from the EU,” the UK Government had said earlier.
The summit had set itself a threefold task of strengthening economic cooperation, regional security cooperation to tackle common threats such as terrorism, and political cooperation to overcome so–called legacy issues and bilateral disputes, such as the Kosovo-Serbia dispute.
The political glitches will annoy the British Foreign Office, which has flagged up the event, publicizing a range of pre-summit events such as entrepreneurs’ meetings and a debate between regional foreign ministers and civic society groups.
More than 20 entrepreneurs from Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania were to attend the Summit, showcasing what they have to offer the UK market, while the UK Trade Minister was to announce the expansion of the Global-trade Entrepreneur Programme, GEP), across the Western Balkans.
Johnson had been expected to announce that the UK would commit £10 million to help build digital skills and employment prospects for young people in the Western Balkans.
Johnson had gone notably quiet on social media ahead of his sudden exit; his last official twitter post was on July 7, celebrating England’s win over Sweden in the World Cup.