Being Romanian Ambassador to the Court of St James’s cannot have been easy in recent months, as the dreadful Daily Mail and even viler Daily Express have whipped up anti-Romanian feeling, cheered on by Nigel Farage and his UKIP nuts, as well as some Conservatives who ought to know better. However, H.E. Ion Jinga (who has been en poste for five years now) has handled the situation with dignity. This evening, during his customary short speech at the Romania National Day reception at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgravia he lamented the fact that the debate about freedom of movement in the European Union has got so skewed and pointed out that most Romanians here are working and of course paying taxes and national insurance. Indeed, all recent reputable surveys show that the nationals of other EU member states working here contribute far more to the UK economy than some of their compatriots receive in benefits. The Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Romania Lord (Quentin) Davies of Stamford lambasted the media scaremongering about migration and it was pointed out that that before the First World War, people could move around Europe freely, but it has taken us nearly a century to get back to that situation. It would be a seriously retrograde step to go back on that progress now. And as Ambassador Jinga mentioned, there are one-and-a-half million Brits enjoying freedom of movement by living and in many cases working in other EU member states. But no country’s media vilifies them. Of course there must be adequate provision to deal with aggressive beggars, criminals and “benefit tourists”. But the vast majority of Romanians (and Bulgarians) in this country do not fit into that category nor will most of those who come later to work.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd December, 2013
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 29th November, 2013
The fight against British Euro-scepticism is on! At the opening session of the London Congress of the ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) Howard Dawber of the Canary Wharf Group (our hosts, as the plenaries are taking place in Canary Wharf’s East Wintergarden) stressed that business and the financial sector strongly support Britain’s membership of the European Union and before handing over to ALDE President Sir Graham Watson underlined the area’s link to Liberalism and Liberal Democracy (William Beveridge did much of his investigation into poverty in the East End, and the Limehouse Declaration establishing the SDP was drawn up at David Owen’s house just up the road), which was noble, given Howard’s political affiliations elsewhere. Graham was in fine rhetorical form, the metaphors rolling off his tongue like the morning mist down the side of a mountain in the Scottish Highlands. He urged everyone to remember as we emerge from a deep recession the core values of social liberalism. Nick Clegg, of course, did not disappoint, speaking without notes about his own by now familiar mixed European heritage and his determination that the European elections will be fought by the Liberal Democrats as the unequivocal party of IN. He argued that the big division in Europe now is not so much between left and right but between those whose minds are closed and those whose minds are open (reflected in politician’s attitudes on such thing as freedom of movement within the European single market and towards others beyond Europe’s frontiers. EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom picked up the issue of Europe’s responsibility towards refugees and asylum seekers, as well as to economic migrants driven by despair to try risky passage across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe. The appalling loss of life off the Italian Lampedusa is only the most striking example of an ongoing humanitarian tragedy. The finale of the opening session was a rousing speech by the (Flemish) President of the ALDE Group in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt. He is an unashamed federalist, but he made clear that he understands the true meaning of federalism, not centralisation, as Euro-sceptics often misrepresent, but empowering downwards. That should mean that there is less but better EU-level regulation. For although the ALDE Party is the most pro-European of all the transnational groups in the European Parliament it is also the party of constructive reform.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: ALDE Congress, ALDE Group, ALDE Party, Canary Wharf, Cecilia Malstrom, East Wintergarden, European elections, Graham Watson, Guy Verhofstadt, Howard Dawber, Lampedusa, Nick Clegg | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th November, 2013
If anyone doubted that only the Liberal Democrats are the true party of IN when it comes to the European Union the opening reception of the ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe) Party Congress at the East Wintergarden in Canary Wharf this evening would have persuaded them. It’s the biggest ever event of its kind and the turnout of members of the 12 governments in which Liberal Democrats are in power (alone or in coalition) was particularly impressive. The UK Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, was of course present and gave a brief speech, as did Sir Graham Watson, President of ALDE (and LibDem MEP for South West England). The working sesssions of the Congress will take place over the next two days, including discussion of the ALDE Manifesto for the May 2014 Euro-elections. All 28 EU member states will be voting then, and all EU citizens who are registered to vote in the UK — and sign a declaration that they will not vote in their country of origin as well — are entitled to vote here. That’s especially important in a global city like London, in which there are an estimated 300,000 French residents and countless other EU migrants. Most of them are the people who are helping London surge out of the economic doldrums (rather than being benefit scroungers, as the Daily Express and other posonous rags would have people believe). Obviously, the LibDems will be targetting them in the run up to May, being the only genuinely pro-European Party, as well as pro-Europeans who normally vote Tory, but who can;t stomach the party’s drift to Euro-phobia. Of course, we in the Liberal Democrats want to see reforms that will make the EU leaner and meaner (in a positive sense). But if you don’t succumb to the siren voices of UKIP and the Tory right, if you’re pro-Britain in the EU then LibDems are the place to be! Many thanks to the Canary Wharf Group for providing the venue, as they have for the London Liberal Democrat spring conference in recent years.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th November, 2013
For the British United Indian Liberal Democrats (BUILD) Diwali is a movable feast, and the fact that tonight’s dinner in the excellent Seasoning north Indian restaurant in Fulham took place long after most other Diwali celebrations were over in no way dimmed the light of the occasion, organised by my indefatigable fellow London LibDem Euro-candidate Anuja Prashar. In fact the timing was perfect, in that the keynote speaker, Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander, recently went on his first ever visit to India to help promote British trade, and duly loved the place (his colleague Vince Cable, incidentally, is virtually an old India hand). The way some UKIP and Tory Eurosceptics spin things you’d think the UK would need to leave the EU to do trade promotion with India effectively, but the opposite is true. Danny is of course also a thoroughbred Europhile, having worked in the not too dim and distant past for the European Movement, which means that both LibDem members of the Coalition Government’s core quartet (the other being Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, of course) are completely on message when it comes to the Liberal Democrats being the party of IN so far as the EU is concerned. In his speech, Danny did a fine balancing act, on the one hand justifiably claiming LibDem credit for helping get Britain in a healthier economic shape than it was in 2010 as well as bringing in fairer policies such as raising the tax allowance to £10,000 (as it will be in April), and saying that for all their obvious policy disagreements he gets on with the Chancellor, George Osborne well. But on the other hand Danny came out strongly on differentiation from the Conservatives, not just on Europe — though that is increasingly self-evident — but on a range of issues, as the Conservative Party is being tugged to the right by many of its backbenchers and Labour is once more being cosy with left-wing trade unions. We are the party of the centre ground, Danny declared — though I personally prefer one of Charles Kennedy’s old sayings: that we are neither left nor right but centre forward. Danny usefully trailed the ALDE (European Liberal Democrats) Congress which will be taking place in Canary Wharf later this week (which I will be attending) and at which he will of course feature, along with other UK government stars and some heavyweight delegations from across our wonderful, diverse continent.
Photo of Danny Alexander, Jonathan Fryer, Anuja Prashar and Geoff Payne (by Merlene Emerson)
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Anuja Prashar, BUILD, Conservatives, Danny Alexander, Diwali, Fulham, George Osborne, India, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, Seasoning, Vince Cable | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 5th November, 2013
Before I left London on my latest foreign lecture tour I was delighted to join the celebrations marking the actor Donald Sinden’s 90th birthday at the Garrick Club in Covent Garden. He has lost none of his impish sense of humour and is one of those thespians who has won thousands of admirers. His voice is unmistakable and even the slightest anecdote becomes a memorable performance when he delivers it. Along with fellow Garrick member Stephen Fry, Donald and I are honorary Patrons of the Oscar Wilde Society, but whereas I have merely written about the great playwright and social reformer, and Stephen impersonated him, Donald encountered Oscar’s nemesis Bosie Douglas when he was a lad – an encounter he enjoys recalling with particular relish. Very unusually, the Garrick renamed one of its function rooms in Donald’s honour, and it was a most merited accolade.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 2nd November, 2013
Until the 1990s there was no parliamentary scrutiny of Britain’s intelligent services; they reported directly to the Prime Minister and in principle were answerable to him alone. That changed with the Intelligence Agencies Act pf 1994, but as Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Chairman of the Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, explained at an AEJ UK Section lunch at Europe House, until 2010 MPs could only request information from MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. However, the Coalition Government changed all that; these days the agencies are required to provide information to his parliamentary committee and indeed on Thursday next week, for the first time ever, evidence presented by agents will be televised. The Committee reports to Parliament and the Chairman is elected, rather than appointed by the Prime Minister. Moreover, the operations of the security agencies, which were previously not part of the scrutiny remit now are. Only the most sensitive information with national security implications is withheld or else shared on a strictly confidential basis. In the Q&A session after Sir Malcolm’s presentation I highlighted the anger felt in Germany by revelations that the NSA in the US has been tapping Angela Merkel’s phone for the past decade and asked for an assurance that the UK’s special relationship with America in the intelligence sphere did not mean that we are in on that sort of activity with regard to our allies too. Sir Malcolm expressed surprise that the Americans would do such a thing, given the obvious likelihood of negative diplomatic fallout if, as happened, the bugging came to light, and he felt it should have been a matter for a political decision at the highest level, not an initiative of the US secret services, as seems to have been the case. He also explained the use of “selectors”, which are key words or other indicators which a computer system tracking phone calls or emails will recognise and then sound an alarm; otherwise the mas of traffic is not even read or listened to, he said. He obviously takes a dim view of the way that the Guardian newspaper has used some of the material that came to light because of the work of Edward Snowden but insisted that the intelligence work done was essential, especially in combatting terrorism. As it costs the British taxpayer £2 billion a year it had better be worthwhile.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th October, 2013
Given the recent stand-off between Spain and Gibraltar, in principle over an artificial reef dropped in the sea by the Gibraltarians, it was daring of the Spanish Embassy in London to host a two-day seminar on the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht, which, among other things, ceded the Rock to the British in perpetuity. Grabbing the bull by the horns, one might say. Ambassador Federico Trillo-Figueroa attended throughout, as academics from Spain, the UK and elsewhere delivered a series of papers, some strictly historical, others more political, before an audience that notably included a couple from the Argentinian Embassy, doubtless looking for parallels with the Falklands/Malvinas. As a journalist, I was invited only for the Ambassador’s closing speech, which was in effect a summary of what had been said over the previous 36 hours, followed by a light buffet lunch of appropriately delicious Spanish food and wine. The papers of the seminar will ultimately be published, but even without them it was an intriguing affair — and prompted me to read the Treaty of Utrecht for the first time (thoughtfully provided in both language versions). That document is a remarkable reflection of the different map of Europe 300 years ago, as well as a record of the transfers and concessions that followed the War of the Spanish Succession.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th October, 2013
This evening I was at the Turkish Embassy in London for the 90th Independence Day celebrations. In brief but pertinent remarks the Ambassador, Unal Cevikoz — one of the most assiduous and popular members of the London diplomatic corps — noted that this year is not only the 90th anniversary of the birth of the Turkish Republic (out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire) but also the 50th anniversary of the Ankara Agreement, between Turkey and the then European Economic Community, precursor of the European Union. There is understandable resentment among many Turks that half a century on, Turkey does not appear to be all that nearer membership — though not through the fault of the United Kingdom, it has to be said, as all major political parties in Britain are firm supporters of Turkish accession. The Ambassador made reference to that, while also remarking that 2013 is also the 40th anniversary of the UK’s accession to what is now the EU. In a nutshell, he urged Britain to stay in, and to help Turkey in as well — which of course resonated with all the Liberal Democrats in the room, and indeed politicians of other parties present. As the Ambassador declared, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s vision was to modernise Turkey and to make it a Western nation (in parenthesis, one should note that even if the 19th century Great Powers’ description of Turkey as the “Sick Man of Europe” was derogatory, nonetheless they accepted that Turkey was a European nation. Of course, Turkey secular, democratic development has not been entirely along Western European lines, but that is hardly surprising or indeed a matter of great contention. It is true that some events this year have raised eyebrows in Europe — and rightly so — but the general direction is positive, and economically Turkey has been advancing at a rate that Europe can only envy. I am one of those who believes that Turkey, like Britain, should not only be in Europe but also should be at the heart of the EU — and all would benefit from that.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 28th October, 2013
Islam has a long history in Bosnia, but in the fratricidal war that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia there were attempts by the (orthodox) Serbs, in particular, to ethnically cleanse Bosnia Herzegovina of its Muslim population, demolish many mosques and divide the territory up with the (Catholic) Croats. I went to Sarajevo not long after the siege of that city was lifted, bringing an end to the nightmare that its inhabitants lived through, running the gauntlet of “sniper alley” and seeing so much of their patrimony, including the library, destroyed. This in a city which had for centuries been a place of religious tolerance and co-existence, echoing Moorish Andalus. Two decades on the situation is much improved, if not perfect, and it was good to join many fellow residents of Tower Hamlets, as well as the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. and other political figures, at a celebratory dinner this evening at the Maryam Centre, next to the East London Mosque, at which the guest of honour was Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniac member of the presidential troika of his country. I met his late father, Aliya, when he was President and like many was deeply impressed by his spirituality and generosity of spirit, determined to reconstitute at atmosphere of tolerance, while ensuring Islam’s survival in that corner of South East Europe. Bakir Izetbegovic, in his speech at the dinner, recalled his father’s work, and said how remarkable it is that Islam has flourished over the past 20 years including in Europe. This was not said in a triumphalist way and indeed the ethos of genuine multiculturalism was evident tonight. All guests were presented with a copy of Alya Izetbegovic’s autobiography as we left, which was a nice touch.