This evening saw Round 2 of the Nick Clegg-Nigel Farage IN/OUT debate over Britain’s membership of the European Union, this time hosted by BBC2 and that evergreen fixture of BBC political programmes, David Dimbleby. I made a short speech at the National Liberal Club before the screening there, highlighting what for me are the three greatest achievements of the EU: (1) peace in Western Europe, (2) the re-integration of formerly Communist states of central and eastern Europe into the European family, and (3) the European Single Market, including labour mobility, which we must resolutely defend. I also briefly touched on the three strands of Liberal Democrat campaigning in the current European elections: jobs (especially for young people), the environment, and crime & security — the last mentioned including the European Arrest Warrant, promoted by Sir Graham Watson, LibDem MEP for South West England but now threatened with being undermined by the Tories. As for the televised debate itself, I thought Nick performed really well for the first 40 minutes or so — much more strongly than last week — though Farage got the upper hand towards the end. As I said in a Q&A afterwards with Vince Cable and Michael Moore at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blackfriars — where a Liberal Business Forum event was in full swing — I think Nick missed an opportunity to counter Farage’s jibe about laws being made in Brussels by unelected bureaucrats. Nick reposted that the number of European civil servants is on a par with those working for Derbyshire County Council, but he could fairly have argued that laws are actually passed by Ministers of the member states (most of them elected by popular mandate) and increasingly in co-decision with the European Parliament — directly elected, and surely something we should be pushing hard over the next eight weeks. Moreover, UKIP is vulnerable when it comes to the European Parliament as their attendance record at committees, in particular, is dire, and they often vote against Britain’s interest in plenary sessions. That fact needs reiterating time and again for people to realise that voting UKIP is actually wasting one’s vote if one wants to see the EU changing for the good.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 2nd April, 2014
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Crowne Plaza Hotel, European Arrest Warrant, European Parliament, European Union, Liberal Democrats, Michael Moore, National Liberal Club, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, Sir Graham Watson, UKIP, Vince Cable | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 1st April, 2014
This Saturday Afghans will go to the polls to elect a new President to replace Hamid Karzai. As NATO troops are also being wound down it’s an opportune moment to examine whether Western intervention in Afghanistan has achieved its intentions. As was made clear at an excellent seminar put on by the Global Strategy Forum in the National Liberal Club this lunchtime, the answer to that question very much depends on how one’s defines those intentions. In the narrowest sense, yes, Al Qaeda lost its operational base and the Taliban government was ousted, though the Taliban are still a force to reckoned with on the ground. Rory Stewart MP — who worked in both Afghanistan and Iraq — argued that a certain degree of stability has been achieved in some areas, despite recent setbacks, and highlighted developmental achievements such as the Turquoise Mountain Foundation which helps artisans market their produce abroad. Caroline Wyatt of the BBC talked of advances that have been made by Afghan women — though most would still think it impossible to carry on working after marriage. The Afghan Ambassador pointed out that these days 21 million Afghans have access to a mobile phone and many young people in Kabul have got into social media. Certainly the relationship between Mr Karzai and NATO forces — particularly the Americans — has been difficult over the last few years and there is no guarantee that the new president will be able to maintain even the uneasy calm that currently exists. The panel thought it unlikely that the Taliban will simply take over again — and were certain that they would not try to impose the same sort of extreme religion-based policies if they did. I have only been to Afghanistan once, in 1969, travelling overland on my way back from the Vietnam War, but I loved the country, with its wild terrain and colourful people. They have suffered a lot since then and certainly deserve a quieter future, and one that is determined by Afghans, not by outsiders.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 30th March, 2014
One should never read too much into one opinion poll, but the YouGov figures researched for the Sunday Times today are a shot in the arm for pro-Europeans in London. They show that the capital’s voters are quite distinct from those in most of the other English regions, by putting UKIP in fourth place behind the Liberal Democrats and the LibDems at around twice their national opinion poll rating. The results are as follows: LAB 34%, CON 22%, LD 18%, UKIP 16%, Grn 7%, Others 2%. Though one cannot predict with absolute certainty the outcome of that under the d’Hondt system of PR used in the European elections (variables being the actual number of votes cast for each party and the total number of votes “wasted” on tiny parties that don’t win a seat), nonetheless were those percentages replicated on 22 May, instead of the current situation in London of 3 Tory MEPs, 2 Labour, 1 LibDem, 1 UKIP, 1 Green, there could be 3 Labour, 2 Tory, 2 LibDem and one UKIP (and no Green). That certainly gives the Liberal Democrats in London a reason to get their adrenalin flowing, and it would confirm what I have increasingly felt over the past couple of years that a majority of London’s population realise that it is not in Britain’s interest to leave the EU, as UKIP wants and the Conservatives appear to be engineering almost by default. Many Londoners have jobs that depend to varying degrees on British membership of the EU and of course the very substantial number of EU migrants living and working in the capital must realise that it is in their interest that Britain stays in and fully signed up to the core principle of labour mobility within the EU. All EU citizens resident in London can vote in both the local and European elections, in the latter instance providing they sign a form saying they won;t vote in their home country. I believe Nick Clegg called it absolutely correctly by making the Liberal Democrats the Party of IN. In fact, we always were, but the party centrally was nervous about saying so. Now we can be out and proud for Britain in the EU, championing the argument that it is good for British jobs and for our place in the world. But we have to motivate those who agree with us to actually vote!
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 29th March, 2014
At one minute past midnight last night the first same-sex marriages took place in England and Wales and today the sun is shining on many such ceremonies. What a long way this country has come since 1967, when Home Secretary Roy Jenkins oversaw the decriminalisation of consensual homosexual relations between adult men, helping end nearly a century of persecution, prosecution, imprisonment and blackmail, not to mention countless suicides. It is to the credit of the Coalition government — not least the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, for pressing ahead with legislation on equal marriage despite opposition from traditionalists and some religious groups. There have been heroes in all the political parties in this struggle, both inside and outside the Houses of Parliament, including men such as Peter Tatchell, who was vilified when he first championed the cause. Special mention should go to LibDems Lynne Featherstone in the Commons and Liz Barker in the Lords, who did so much to further the legislative process. This morning, Lynne was a guest at a same sex wedding party (see picture) in Haringey, which for me sums up the brilliance of Britain’s modern diversity. Brilliant, too, has been the wave of enthusiasm and congratulation from heterosexual, as well as bi and gay, Britons. There is a festive air in England and Wales today, and surely it can’t be long before Scotland and maybe even Northern Ireland follow suit. As a teenager I lived in dread of being a “criminal” in the eyes of English law. But today I can truly say how proud I am to be British.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 28th March, 2014
Yesterday I attended a seminar organised by Middle East Monitor on satellite jamming — the how and the why and some thoughts about how to overcome it. The day was particularly focused on Egypt and how both Hosni Mubarak and the current interim regime in Cairo have used jamming (directly or by proxy) to stifle TV channels of which they don’t approve, thereby adding another layer of censorship and the stifling of free expression on top of station closures, the arrest of journalists (such as those from Al Jazeera), and so on. I chaired the afternoon session that looked at issues of International Law, in which the Iraqi President of the Arab Lawyers Association UK, Sabah al-Mukhtar, gave an excellent presentation outlining the challenges involved. In my own remarks I said that maybe Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights needs finessing, as new technologies of which people in 1948 could not even have dreamt have totally changed the nature of media, not least twitter, YouTube,etc (hence the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to shut them down). Perhaps what is needed is an elaboration of the concept of free expression to take into account access to information as a fundamental human right. That would give a solid basis on which an area of International Law could evolve; at present, only such precise things as genocide and war crimes can be the basis of international tribunals. Of course International Law develops slowly and different parts of the world have different domestic legal systems, but it should be possible to develop a plausible ad effective framework in which governments or leaders who censor media through deliberate jamming or in other ways could be held accountable.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, International Law, Middle East Monitor, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Sabah al-Mukhtar, Turkey, Universal Declaration of Human Rights | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd March, 2014
This afternoon I stood in bright sunshine on a stage in London’s Finsbury Park, speaking to a crowd of several thousand Kurds, to mark the festival of Newroz. In traditional Kurdish villages, people would jump over a fire at Newroz, but as I said in my speech, although there was no fire in front of me I could feel the fire in the people before me. They are right to be proud of their long history, culture and language, and to struggle for greater rights in the Middle East. In recent years I have been to Amed (Diyarbakir) and surrounding districts in predominantly Kurdiah areas of south-eastern Turkey, monitoring elections, though I won’t be able to go to cover the local elections in Turkey next month as I’m staying in London to campaign for the European elections. I said to the crowd it is important that they — if they have British or other European Union passports — vote on 22 May for a party that supports the rights of minority peoples and is committed to Britain remaining in the EU, or otherwise urge their neighbours and friends to do so. Apart from Sarah Ludford MEP (who also has a longstanding interest in Kurdish issues) and myself, on the LibDem list for London we also have a Turkish Kurd, Turhan Ozen. The situation in Turkey is frustrating in that Recep Tayyip Erdogan made some significant moves towards recognising Kurdish rights but like so much of his policy, this has often been a situation of one step forward, one step back. In Syrian Rojava the situation is critical for many Kurds and in Iran several Kurdish leaders have recently been executed or harassed. Only in the Kurdish region of Iraq (KRG) — which I visited this time last year — is the situation markedly better. So Kurds have a lot to struggle for. But as I concluded in my short speech, today is a day for celebration. Newroz Piroj Be!
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 22nd March, 2014
Over the past few weeks I have been commenting regularly on developments in Ukraine/Crimea for an Arab TV channel, Al Etejah*. And while much of the attention rightly has been on Russia and what exactly Vladimir Putin has in mind from day to day, one of the broader aspects I’ve been mulling over is the implication the whole affair has for the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), which between 1995 and 2009 was one of the “three pillars” of the EU (see diagram). CFSP is one area of European integration that has not progressed very far, and although the EU 28 usually vote as a harmonious bloc at the United Nations quite strong policy differences often emerge between member states, some of the larger of which (including Britain) still see their foreign policy as a matter of fundamentally national concern and competence. The EU has been united in condemning Russia’s effective annexation of Crimea and in extending the hand of accelerated friendship to Ukraine, but there have been divergent views about what sort of sanctions to impose against Russia, how strongly one should fall in line with what Washington is doing (London’s default position) and to what extent European economies should try to reduce their dependence on Russian energy supplies. There has been agreement that the EU should move faster to embrace more warmly Georgia and Moldova — both of which could eventually aspire to EU membership and are vulnerable to Russian expansionism. But on other international issues — such as how friendly Europe should now be to Iran, and how disapproving of Israel’s activities in the occupied West Bank — there often appear to be irreconcilable divides. Of course, the EU is not a single state and maybe never will be, but if it is to be taken more seriously on the global stage it really needs to present a more coherent Common Foreign and Security Policy. And although the High Representative Cathy Ashton has performed better than I dared hope when her appointment was announced, her successor in charge of the EU’s external action needs to be a figure with more political clout.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 20th March, 2014
This evening the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan closed down twitter in his country, having previously warned he might do so. As a longstanding friend of Turkey I tear my hair out. There’s a saying in Britain that politicians go off the boil after 10 years (think Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair) and Erdogan has gone off big time. When he was first elected he and his moderately Islamist AKP seemed destined to lead Turkey through to a bright new future, unworried by the sort of military coups that have peppered the country’s political history. And indeed the government pushed through many remarkable achievements in infrastructure and economic development (sometimes without taking the environment into due consideration). Huge swaths of the economy were privatised and per capita GDP levels rose at a rate that suggested Turkey might indeed be capable of meeting the criteria to join the European Union in the foreseeable future. Sure, there were some warning signs, such as the on/off nature of the PM’s reaching out to the Kurds — one step forward, one step back. And while some people in the media might have been involved at some stage in some shady business did not justify a situation in which there are more journalists in prison in Turkey than in any country in the world. Then with the Gezi Park protests last year the wheels really started to come off the AKP bandwagon. What started as a grassroots campaign to preserve one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul quickly turned into something much broader — not least when the police and security forces cracked down brutally. The protests have not completely gone away, but Erdogan meanwhile has been inflating conspiracy theories: declaring that outside forces (including the foreign media) have been fomenting dissent and that certain groups, including his erstwhile ally, the Gulen Movement, are out to bring him down. Thus the banning of twitter — which had become for him an agent of the great conspiracy — had to be silenced, despite the fact that it has been one of the most faithful, consistent and up-to-the-minute channels for ordinary Turks to voice their opinion. Like an ancient Roman Emperor, Erdogan has chosen to kill the messenger, rather than listen to the message. Will the voters forgive him when the local elections come round shortly? He certainly still has a formidable body ofsupport, especially in conservative rural areas, though nowhere near the approximately 50% he garnered for his third general election win. No, this silencing of twitter smacks of the acts of a desperate man who has lost touch with reality. His days must surely be numbered, but don’t ask me to guess how many.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 18th March, 2014
The Irish in London have been in a fairly frolicking mood these last few days — perhaps not surprising considering St. Patrick’s Day. But there is more to it than that. As the (relatively new) Irish Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, Dan Mulhall, put it at an event in the European Commission’s representation office, Europe House, this evening, the relationship between the UK and Eire has entered a whole new dimension by being fellow members of the European Union. That relationship has not always been easy in the past, given the resistance by certain English quarters to Irish home rule (the great Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone being a significant exception). But the combination of the Good Friday Agreement over Northern Ireland and mutual interests within the EU have brought London and Dublin closer together now than ever in living memory. The Queen made what was generally regarded as a most successful visit to the Irish Republic in 2011, and the current Irish President, Michael D. Higgins, is due here in London on the first ever state visit ere long. Ambassador Mulhall was in Europe House this evening for the opening of an exhibition of paintings by the Irish artist — long resident in London — Bernard Canavan, and naturally mused on the subject of Canavan’s work, which is largely about the Irish diaspora in the UK, from the Irish navvies working for Murphy’s to the nurses that helped keep the NHS afloat before more exotic helpmates arrived from elsewhere. Perhaps now some Brits could learn a thing or two from the Irish expats, not least a greater understanding of our common European identity, not only in culture but on a political level. All of the hundreds of thousands of Irish resident in the UK can vote here in the European elections on 22 May, of course, but so too can the residents of the other 26 EU member states other than Britain. The EU citizens, who make up such a vibrant part of London’s economy — as well as that in the UK as a whole — need to stand up and be counted, as to why Britain needs to be at the heart of the EU, not just for their future but for ours.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th March, 2014
Liberal Democrat Euro-candidates have been urged by sitting MEPs not to sign pledges presented to them in the run-up to the European elections on 22 May — and given the tuition fees pledge fiasco after the 2010 general election the caution is understandable. In general, anyhow, I prefer to give a reasoned answer to individual constituent’s’ inquiries, rather than saying yeah or nay to a prescribed formula. However, I have made an exception by signing the RSPCA’s pledge to work hard for encompassing animal welfare legislation if elected as this is a cause I not only believe in strongly but fear is being irrevocably damaged by human activities. Whole species are being wiped off the planet by irresponsible policies, including habitat destruction and in many areas of animal husbandry improvements need to be made to improve animals’ quality of life, even if they eventually destined for the dinner table. I think the RSPCA is right to highlight not just cruelty to domestic animals and pets but also so-called “game” and farm animals. Killing animals and birds for “sport” has always sickened me, which is why I have since my 20s been a Life Member of the League against Cruel Sports, and the use of real fur in fashion similarly raises my hackles. Hats off to those brave women who from time to time carry out stunts to highlight the practice. A beautiful white seal, for example, belongs in its natural environment in the Arctic, not filleted and slung round some supermodel’s neck.