When the leaders of 16 countries assembled in London in July 9 and 10 last year for the Western Balkans summit – the fifth such meeting in the context of the so-called Berlin Process – they did on Britain’s insistence that the summit should go ahead in London because, while the UK was “leaving the EU”, it was not “leaving Europe”.
But the event sent the exact opposite message after the summit host, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, failed to even turn up.
Admittedly, he had an excuse – he was resigning the day the summit opened, claiming then Prime Minister Theresa May’s “soft” Brexit plan would leave the UK like an EU “colony”.
But he did not have to choose the two-day Balkan summit to resign, and his no-show at the meeting, some said, spoke volumes about his seeming indifference to a region in which Britain was once an influential player.
Now as Prime Minister, having dethroned May as Conservative Party leader, Balkan leaders may be wondering whether Britain under his stewardship (however long that lasts) plans to play any part in the region’s affairs at all.
Unlike May, a moderate Remainer who became a moderate Brexiteer after the 2016 referendum, Johnson has for years held the view that the EU was an essentially bad organisation – with an inbuilt instinct for waste, domination and undemocratic decision-making.
Getting out of this (in his view) prison-like club, and demolishing its reputation in Britain has been his guiding motif ever since he went to Brussels in 1989 as correspondent for the right-wing Daily Telegraph.
Obsessed with uncovering scandalous waste at the heart of the EU project in Brussels, the affairs of the Balkans unsurprisingly preoccupied him very little.
In 1999, now editing the right-wing Spectator magazine, he gained some fans in Serbia for criticising the NATO bombardment, claiming – wrongly, it turned out – that air strikes would not stop Serbia from continuing to ethnically cleanse Kosovo.
But Serbs who saw Johnson as a sympathiser with their cause, in Kosovo or anywhere else, were wrong. He was merely one of a platoon of right-wing columnists who were bitterly opposed to Tony Blair’s Labour government, and desperate for it to trip up in Kosovo.
Fast forward to 2016, as newly appointed Foreign Secretary in Theresa May’s government, Johnson had put all that behind him. On a brief autumn visit to Kosovo, he declared himself “delighted” to be in Pristina and said Britain wanted a “secure, stable and prosperous Kosovo”.
In another shock to any lingering Serbian fans, he went on to call Kosovo “a shining example to others” – adding that he was “proud that Britain was one of the first countries to recognise its independence in 2008”.
On a visit to Belgrade, as part of the same tour, he also declared strong support for Serbian leader Alexsandar Vucic and for Serbia’s EU accession hopes. But the Belgrade stopover became mired in controversy at home, after he was accused of using it mainly to promote his new book on Winston Churchill, The Churchill Factor.
Meanwhile, Johnson took a notably hard line on the alleged coup in Montenegro of October 2016, lending unqualified support to the version of events put forward by the government in Podgorica. Johnson repeatedly backed its claims that Russia had been in involved in a plot to topple the veteran pro-Western leader Milo Djukanovic – and that the plotters may have intended to kill him.
“They’re engaged in undermining countries in the western Balkans – you saw what happened in Montenegro,” Johnson said in March 2017.
There was “plenty of evidence the Russians are capable of all sorts of dirty tricks, [including in] Montenegro an attempted coup and possibly an attempted assassination,” he added.
Johnson’s stint at the Foreign Office ended too soon for him to formulate any clearer policy on the Balkans, beyond the idea that Russia was becoming too involved.
Now, as Prime Minister, the Balkans is the least of his priorities. All his energies will be spent on maintaining his wafer-thin majority in parliament and in getting Britain out of the EU by an October 31 deadline – deal or no deal. If he meets this goal, he is expected to go for an election.
In reality, Britain’s influence in the Balkans started to crumble on the same day that the June 2016 referendum result showed that a majority of UK voters wanted to leave the EU.
Britain’s power in the region had never been economic – business ties are minimal – but political. As a consistent supporter of enlargement – partly for selfish reasons, to dilute Franco-German power – Britain was an important ally of would-be EU members in the Balkans and an important counterweight to enlargement-sceptic France.
But the idea that Britain could continue to lobby effectively for enlargement while leaving at the same time was always fanciful. It was clear, even before the fiasco of the London Balkan summit, that the UK had lost all real leverage over these processes. In that sense, whether May, Johnson – or someone else – became British PM is almost irrelevant.
Author: Marcus Tanner, an editor of Balkan Insight