Europe

Boris Johnson proves himself with the Balkans

BY Denis MacShane   /  9 July 2018

Writing in defence of Boris Johnson seems a forlorn waste of time but our much mocked Foreign Secretary is actually going to do some good this week and showing that Britain still has a role to play.

His short two years at the Foreign Office were full of more gaffes and bad headlines than a controversial politician who cannot see a gallery without playing to it can manage in entire political career.

He was brought back from the political dead by Theresa May in July 2016 and two years later repaid her the compliment by walking out of her cabinet over Europe having been upstaged 12 hours earlier by David Davis.

Whether he has returned to the political netherworld remains to be seen. He was obsessed with Brexit as he has been obsessed with the politics of Britain in Europe since going to Brussels as a Daily Telegraph correspondent before the EU even existed. It would be too much to say Johnson invented Euroscepticism but he made it bold, brash, brazen and spawned imitators like Nigel Farage and Daniel Hannam who Johnsonised British politics to the point of winning the Brexit plebiscite but then did not know what to do with it.

Although Johnson will not be much missed by FCO insiders he did have a restless energy and visited odd corners of the globe which grander, more self-important Foreign Secretaries regarded as infra dig.  So the day he resigned was also the day when the FCO hosted an important conference on the future of a tiny corner of Europe which like a ghost from the past has given rise to world wars and genocidal massacres, but which now counts on Britain to join modernity.

The West Balkan nations have capitals like Sarajevo where the opening shot of World War 1 was fired, and Belgrade upon which Nato poured a storm of cruise missiles in the last months of the 20th century. A brilliant British officer, General Sir Mike Jackson, skilfully avoided what might have been World War 3 by letting Russian soldiers retreat with honour and dignity rather than get involved in a shooting confrontation over control of Pristina Airport.

It is home to two and one-third majority Muslim population states – Albania, Kosovo and Macdeonia – though these European Muslim communities consume wine, beer and raki in industrial quantities and there are more chances of seeing a niqab or burka in Knightsbridge than in Tirana or Pristina.

They share more history than can be written or read. The Katyn style mass murder of 8,000 Bosnian men, children and one woman in 1995 at Srebrenica was a crime Europe had not seen since 1945. Precisely the right number of plastic handcuffs were provided. Precisely the right depth of dirt dug up by ecavators to bury the bodies. Precisely the right number of bullets, coffee breaks and booze for the Serb executioners were provided.

Now all the 6 countries of the region want to move on. Unlike luckier Croatia and Slovenia they did not slip into the EU with patronage from Germany, Austria and Italy. There was too much corruption, too much hate, too much crime. And the surreal refusal of Belgrade to come to terms with the existence of Kosovo was as if London 20 years after the war of Irish independence was still insisting Ireland was a breakaway part of Britain.

They see that joining the EU to make a seamless market from the Aegean to the Alps makes sense. Yes they are poor but no poorer than Greece or Portugal when let into Europe in the 1980s. Dodgy politics? Try Italy, or Spain where a government has just been booted out after court convictions on corruption.

Britain has always been a friend of the region and Boris Johnson has visited tirelessly addressing parliaments and governments urging them to cooperate. It is the FCO paradox.  As their chief leads the charge in his country to quit Europe, his officials lead the campaign to get the 18 million people of the West Balkans into Europe.  Britain is gripped by Brexit and now the resignation of David Davis, followed by Boris Johnson. That is our affair. In the West Balkans, right or wrongly, they see getting closer to Europe to be necessary, as six nations try to stand on their own feet.

Denis MacShane was the Minister of the Balkans 2001-2005. He visits and writes regularly on the region.