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Portugal: Political turmoil hangs over Lisbon Web Summit

Jochen Faget Lisbon
November 13, 2023

The resignation of Portugal's prime minister and calls for a boycott have overshadowed the Lisbon Web Summit starting this week. But the tech jamboree hasn't lost its lure.

A picture with blue screens on the wall of the main conference hall at the Web Summit in Lisbon
The New York Times has called the Web Summit "a grand conclave of the tech industry’s high priests"Image: Jochen Faget/DW

The Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal is as popular as ever: More than 70,000 participants from over 160 countries are expected this year, as well as about 1,000 investors who are seeking hot candidates from among the 2,600 tech startups present there.

Taking place from Monday through Thursday, the summit — which bills itself as an event to "redesign the global tech industry" — is, however, shaken by the resignation of its founder Paddy Cosgrave.

Cosgrave stumbled over a tweet on social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter) in which he failed to explicitly condemn the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel in a comment on the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip.

Following the tweet, Israel's ambassador to Portugal called for the boycott of the Web Summit, which several tech giants — including Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon — heeded by withdrawing their participation. Apologies from Cosgrave came too late, and he was eventually forced to step down over the scandal.

Shortly before the summit was due to begin, it was announced that Cosgrave would be succeeded by Katherine Maher, a 40-year-old American who led Wikipedia as CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Paddy Cosgrave smiles with his mouth agape while holding his hands up
Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave resigned following a furor over his tweet on Israel's war against the HamasImage: Jochen Faget/DW

Apart from Cosgrave, Portugal saw another political figure lose his job shortly before the Web Summit. Prime Minister Antonio Costa submitted his resignation Tuesday after police raided his official residence and the country's attorney general confirmed he was being investigated under a corruption probe.

Why German politicians aren't attending

The uproar about Costa hasn't dented Portugal's reputation, claimed the country's president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, nor has Cosgrave's resignation done any harm to the popularity of the Web Summit, he said.

"All is good. Ironically, what happened only increased interest in the event," he told reporters at the end of last week, adding that the public debate turned out to be the "best publicity for the Web Summit imaginable."

Rebelo de Sousa said, however, that contrary to previous practice, he wouldn't attend the closing event of the Web Summit this year.

A group of mostly young people gathering in the German exhibition space at the summit
Germany has lined up the biggest number of startups at the summitImage: Jochen Faget/DW

German political leaders are also conspicuously absent from the event. Even as tech companies from Europe's biggest economy are represented in force, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck has canceled his planned trip to Lisbon.

Originally, the minister from the Green Party was expected to deliver a speech on "Germany's path to a progressive future." This means Lisbon's vibrant clubbing scene will now have to make do without Habeck, as the minister had been planning to attend the so-called German Startup Night at the trendy Lisbon Factory location.

According to media reports, Habeck dropped his visit to Lisbon due to Costa's resignation. The former prime minister used to be a close ally of Habeck in his push to make German and European industries greener in times of climate change.

What the Web Summit has in store

Despite cancelations and involuntary absentees, the 2023 Web Summit is set to line up the usual mix of prominent tech people and nerdy expertise.

Katherine Maher on stage at the Lisbon Web Summit
Will Katherine Maher be able to maintain the Web Summit's global reputation as being the world’s "premier tech conference"Image: Web Summit

Whistleblower Chelsea Manning will speak about digital security, while former boxing champion Vladimir Klitschko is expected to provide insights into the situation in Ukraine amid the ongoing war.

Stella Assange, the wife of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, is in Lisbon to address the audience, and Portuguese football coach Andre Villas-Boas will share the stage with Croatian player Ana Markovic.

Regarding topical highlights, the emergence of artificial intelligence, of course, will be in the spotlight of many scheduled discussions and events. Apart from that, the question of what role tech can play in combating climate change will feature prominently.

This article was originally written in German.