Jonathan Fryer

Archive for January, 2009

Davos and anti-Davos

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 31st January, 2009

Every year in late January, a significant proportion of the world’s movers and shakers in the fields of politics, business and banking (plus a sprinkling of Hollywood and pop celebrities) go up to the Swiss Alpine resort of Davos to swap notes at the World Economic Forum, but this year there is less of an air of self-congratulation amongst them. The financiers in particular are  looking chastened, as well they might and Gordon Brown’s now permanent hangdog expression  suddenly seems quite apt. There has been some mountain-top drama, notably when the Turkish Prime Minister, Receb Tayyip Erdogan, stormed out of a panel session with Israeli President Shimon Peres and received a hero’s welcome back home.

Particularly interesting is who is not there this year, not least the Brazilian President, Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ Da Silva who, as the leader of one of the world’s top ten economies, has a standing invitation to Davos. He decided that this year he would instead attend the  anti-globalisation shindig, the World  Social Forum, in the Amazonian port city of Belem. This has won him plenty of brownie points among Brazilians and other Latin Americans. And he has been able to make the valid political point that this is maybe a time to be listening to NGOs and alternative voices as well, rather than just to bewildered heads of government and failed bankers. It’s depressingly true that the European media, particularly in Britain, pays very little attention to what happens at the World Social Forum; in  contrast to the acres of text churned out about Davos. But maybe that is one of the things that will change in the post-recession world.

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Iceland, the EU and the Euro-elections

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 30th January, 2009

Iceland is now seriously considering applying for membership of the European Union, having followed a ‘go it alone’ policy for many years (mainly to try to keep control over its fishing grounds). The country metaphorically sank when the tide of the global financial crisis washed over it, making not just politicians but also the general public realise that at times of crisis,  it is maybe wiser to be inside a big tent rather than outside on one’s own. As all prospective members of the EU have to agree to adopt the euro, the Eurozone is therefore likely soon to absorb Iceland and reach up into the northern Atlantic, leaving Britain sticking out like a sore thumb. This is bound to reignite debate about the UK’s eventual adoption of the single currency.

In a recent Europe policy paper, passed by the last Liberal Democrat autumn conference in Bournemouth, the party reiterated its belief that Britain should join the euro in due course. That does not mean we will be campaigning in this year’s Euro-elections for immediate Eurozone membership — indeed, the pound sterling needs to recover quite a bit before it would be at an appropriate level for that to happen — but we should not ignore the issue. Informed opinion is beginning to shift on the desirability of Eurozone membership and I believe British public attitudes on the matter are starting to change.

Yesterday afternoon, I participated in a meeting at the European Parliament in Brussels between British MEPs, some of their staff and the London-based European elections manifesto team, chaired by Danny Alexander, MP. It would be improper of me to divulge details of the discussions, but suffice it to say that the elections are indeed going to be fought on European issues, notably the way that Europe can work together better to tackle current economic challenges, as well as climate change and other environmental priorities, and cross-border security issues. It will doubtless be a huge relief to all those who were embarassed by the party’s  failure to pin its European colours to the mast in previous European elections that this time there is to be no ambiguity. The Liberal Deùocrats have a unique selling point on this in the UK context and at least 30 per cent of the British electorate agrees with us, so let’s go for it!

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Civil Society and Promoting Democratic Change

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 29th January, 2009

leyla-zana This morning I addressed the 5th International Conference on the ‘EU, Turkey and the Kurds’, organised by the EU Turkey Civic Commission at the European Parliament, stresing the importance of a healthy civil society within any putative democracy. That’s why the Westminster Foundation for Democracy — for which I sometimes go on foreign missions — sees NGOs as giving added value to the work of political parties in constructing an open and vibrant political space.  In a free society, the media and an independent judiciary also have a crucial role to play; That is indeed often the case in Turkey — but not when issues of cultural diversity or the linguistic rights of Kurds and other minority peoples are concerned. Certain elements of the Turkish constitution and penal code leave the door wide open for prosecutions which to an outside observer often appear malicious and vindictive. As a strong friend of Turkey, I hope that that situation will change before too long. If it doesn’t, the country has little chance of realising its goal of joining the European  Union, as the EU’s so-called Copenhagen criteria demand due respect for minority peoples.

I shared the conference platform with former Plaid Cymru MEP, Eurig Wyn, who drew some interesting parallels with the importance of the Welsh language in Wales, though as far as I know, no-one has been sent to prison for speaking Welsh in the Westminster parliament, which was essentially the case of former Kurdish Turkish MP Leyla Zana, who was the star speaker at the two-day Brussels conference. She is once again facing criminal chargzs, but a simultaneous gathering of the leaders of all the political groups in the European Parliament here in Brussels today issued a call to the Turkish government to bring a halt to all legal moves against her.

(photo of Leyla Zana: Chris Kutschera)

Link: http://www.eutcc.org/

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Time for Change in Turkey!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 28th January, 2009

I’m spending two days at the European Parliament in Brussels at the 5th International Conference on the EU, Turkey and the Kurds. Indeed, I’m one of the speakers tomorrow morning, on the theme ‘The Role of Civil Society in Promoting Democratic Change’. This afternoon, two British LibDem MEPs were on the platform: Andrew Duff from the Eastern Region (who is Vice-President of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee) and my London running mate, Sarah Ludford. Britain is unusual in having not only a large Kurdish-Turkish resident population,  but also being a keen advocate of Turkish membership of the EU. For that to happen, though, there has to be more reform in Turkey, not least in ensuring full cultural rights and equal treatment for the Kurdish minority. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan keeps sending out mixed messages on this, one moment liberalising the situation (for example by lifting some restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language), then the next seemingly pandering to narrow Turkish nationalism. As Professor Michael Gunter said at the conference today, there is also a disconnect between Turkey’s posing as a mediator on the international stage (for example, between Israel and Syria) while proving shy of facilitating true reconciliation among the country’s ethnic communities.

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The End of the Peer Show?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th January, 2009

house-of-lords    Liberal Democrat parliamentarians in both Houses have been performing well in the rumpus over the latest allegations of political sleaze. Willie Goodhart, in the Lords, gave a ringing call for tougher sanctions against those who bring Parliament into disrepute, as the four Labour peers accused of making themselves available for hire for asking questions and what is effectively lobbying work in the Chamber certainly appear to have done. Nick Clegg in the Commons has also emphasized the need for probity, including the possibility to expel peers who abuse their position. Unbelievably, even being sent to jail for a felony is currently not a bar to continuing membership of the Upper House. That has to be wrong. Of course, a system in which members of the increasingly important revising chamber are not paid salaries is likely to lead to situations in which people are tempted to top up their allowances with ‘consultancy’ work, some of it more legitimate than the rest. We need to have comprehensive House of Lords reform, which will see at least a majority of peers elected, rather than appointed by the Prime Minister, and properly remunerated for the important task that they fulfil.

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Historic First for International Criminal Court

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th January, 2009

More than six years after the International Criminal Court was established in The Hague as a permanent war crimes tribunal, its first case opened today. The defendant (who has pleaded not guilty) is Thomas Lubanga, leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots, who is charged with conscripting children under the age of 15 to kill, rape and pillage ethnic Lendus in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 1998 and 2003. More people have died as a result of the fighting in Congo than in any other modern conflict, but the crimes Thomas Lubanga is accused of are especially chilling — basically turning youngsters into automated killing machines through brutality and fear. As the Argentinian Chief Prosecutor at the ICC, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, says, ‘the children still suffer the consequences of Lubanga’s crimes’.

Other people the ICC would like to get its hands on include Joseph Kony, leader of the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army and — more controversially — President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan (over Darfur). But that is easier said than done. Many governments do not wish to cooperate with the ICC. Indeed, a significant number of countries have refused to sign up to the Court, including the United States, China, several Arab states and Israel. The Bush administration justified its boycotting of the ICC on the grounds that malicious prosecutions might be brought againt US troops for their actions in Iraq and elsewhere. Similarly, the Israeli Prime Miniseter, Ehud Olmert, has just declared that the Israeli government will ensure that no Israeli soldier will be at risk of prosecution for alleged war crimes in the recent operation in Gaza.

Despite these handicaps, this has been an historic day at the ICC. Those of us in Europe and elswhere who want to see a world in which no-one is beyond the reach of justice when they commit horrendous crimes should take encouragement from this and start to put pressure on Barack Obama and others to ensure that every self-declared democratic nation proves its commitment to the rule of international law by endorsing the ICC.

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The BBC’s Gaza Gaffe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 25th January, 2009

The BBC’s outrageous decision to bar the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC)* from broadcasting an Appeal for the people of Gaza is another nail in the coffin of the organisation’s credibiity and international standing. Moreover, it breaches the corporation’s own guidelines about emergency appeals, namely:

1) the disaster must be on such a scale and of such emergency as to call for swift international humanitarian assistance;

2) the DEC agencies (or some of them) must be in a position to provide effective and swift humanitarian assistance at a scale to justify a national appeal.

3) there must be sufficient public awareness, and sympathy for the humanitarian situation as to give reasonable grounds for concluding that a public Appeal would be successful. 

Having myself been on a London march in which tens of thousands of people were calling for an end to the recent  bloody onslaught on Gaza, I have no doubt of the strength of public opinion regarding the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza now that hostilities have ended. The BBC management’s excuse that somehow there would be a conflict of interest because of the graphic images of dead and wounded children and other victims shown as recent news itelms is, frankly, bollocks. I first became concerned about international affairs and humanitarian fundraising during the Biafra conflict in the late 1960s, when TV film footage of starving children there had a powerful role in raising public awareness in Britain and boosting funds sent to charities.

The BBC should immediately reverse its ignoble decision not to screen the DEC Appeal for Gaza and the people within the Corporation who were ultimately responsible should seriously consider resigning,  if the BBC is to salvage its ever more battered reputation.

Polite messages of protest to the BBC can be sent via the link below.

* The Disasters Emergency Committee groups the 13 largest overseas aid agencies in Britain, such as the British Red Cross, Christian Aid and Oxfam

Link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/

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Strasbourg’s Chilly Charms

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th January, 2009

european-parliament       It must be 30 years since I was last in Strasbourg, though if I get elected to the European Parliament in June, I’ll be coming here pretty often. The city has the ‘best of both worlds’, in terms of its glorious Germanic half-timbered architecture and its scrumptious French food; the delicatessens are to die for. I’ve always found the Cathedral rather sinister, but Strasbourg is an immensely civilised place in which to live and work. It has acquired some very sleek trams with panoramic windows since my last visit. 

Tomorrow, I will be attending the Executive of the Liberal International (postponed from Bangkok last month, when Thailand was at the height of its troubles) and an associated conference, at which Liberal members of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly will be well represented. Strasbourg is an ideal location for the Council of Europe, given the city’s fluctuating history between Germany and France. But for all its many charms (chilly at this time of the year), I think the French are wrong to insist that it should remain the main venue of the European Parliament. That situation, alas, is enshrined in the EU treaties, which means it cannot be altered without unanimous agreement by EU member states. That is something France is unlikely to agree to in the short term, despite the scandalous waste of money spent shuttling people and material between Brussels and Strasbourg and the latter’s relative inaccessibility. But that won’t stop me and countless others campaigning for a single seat for the European Parliament, in Brussels. People who agree should consider signing the online petition accessible through the link below.

Link: http://www.oneseat.eu/

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Anthony King at the Gladstone Club

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 23rd January, 2009

PD*5434322   Professor Anthony King of Essex University has become a standard feature of election night programmes in Britain, his lugubrious expression masking an acute mind and incisive wit. As politicians (of all parties) try to spin how even the worst electoral disaster is in fact not too bad at all, he can plunge his stiletto of psephological acuracy. So it was great to be able to spend the evening with him last night, when he was the guest speaker at the Annual Dinner of the Gladstone Club at the National Liberal Club, talking on the British constitution, on which he is one of the world’s greatest experts, despite — or maybe because of — being born in Canada.

The Gladstone Club is far more eclectic than its name might imply, as there are members of all political parties and none. The basic thrust of the group is to examine relevant contemporary political and economic issues in an environment of free discussion and camaraderie. There was so much in Anthony King’s talk that it defies summarising, but one of the things that really struck me was his emphasis on the fact that the British political system has changed fundamentally over the past 50 years, through such things as devolution and the strengthening of the independent judiciary. The Britain we live in today — like the wider world — is a far more complex place, but for some of us, at least, more interesting and stimulating.

Link: http://gladstoneclub.org

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Bexley Result in Full

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 23rd January, 2009

East Wickham Ward, 22 January: Steven Hall (Conservative) 798; Michael Barnbrook (BNP) 790; Pat Ball (Labour) 700; Grace Goodlad (Liberal Democrat) 564; Laurence Williams (English Democrat) 128. Tory majority: 8. Talk about a cliff-hanger. I should think the BNP must be ready metaphorically to kill the English Democrat for standing.

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