Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Brussels’

We Mustn’t Take Peace for Granted

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th April, 2014

Battle of the SommeIn this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War many minds have been turning to the issues of war and peace, and when I make speeches at hustings or rallies in the current European election campaign I always make the point that the founding fathers of what is now the European Union wanted to enmesh the economies of France and Germany (in particular) so that war in western Europe would be unthinkable. And so it appears. But it is all too easy for us today to take that for granted. As a child of the 1950s, I was very much aware of the legacy of the Second World War — the bomb sites, the drab unpainted unrestored buildings, the dreary food and the tail-end of rationing — but I was too young to see National Service. So it was perhaps a little perverse of me to go off to war voluntarily at the age of 18 — as a journalist in Vietnam. What I saw there burned into my heart a hatred for war and for all the human emotions connected with it. I attended my first Quaker meeting there, and joined the Society of Friends when I went up to Oxford. And although Reuters sent me off to comfortable Brussels when I joined the news agency after university, the lure of conflict zones was too great, and relaunched as a freelance commentator and broadcaster I covered a whole range of bloody situations, from Israel/Palestine to Central America and Angola. That was not because I revelled in the suffering. Quite the contrary. But I believed passionately that it needed to be reported, so people might learn that humanity should develop ways of resolving differences and rivalries more constructively. I still feel that today, as Vladimir Putin seems intent on infiltrating deeper into eastern Ukraine, alarming not just Kiev but several other of Russia’s neighbours. In the recent Clegg versus Farage EU IN/OUT debates in Britain, Nick Clegg stressed the importance of Britain’s EU membership for jobs — and of course that is true. But I shall also carry on talking about something that is not just related to the economy or livelihoods: the EU — enlarged a decade ago to take in formerly Communist states of central and eastern Europe — is a brilliant example of how to do things differently, about how to live togeter in peace, celebrating diversity. Fall back on nationalism, as Nigel Farage and some of his more unsavoury counterparts on the Continent would like us to do, will only lead to renewed tensions between peoples and, yes, the reappearance of the spectre of war.

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The EU and Ukraine

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 6th March, 2014

EU UkraineEuropean Union Heads of Government met in emergency summit in Brussels today to discuss what to do about Ukraine. Although there was not complete agreement about how forcefully to react to provocative moves by President Putin and pro-Russian forces inside Crimea, everyone understood the need to prevent a further escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. Interestingly, Romania offered to act as an honest-broker between the EU and Moscow, which is a promising development; certainly, diplomacy will remain Europe’s tack for the time being, though European Council President Herman van Rompuy warned that various economic sanctions will be imposed if Russia does not change its tune soon. As it is, preparatory talks for the panned G8 Summit in Sochi have been abandoned, and the mood in both Washington and London is in favour of cold-shouldering Russia from the G8, which could possibly revert to being the G7. Meanwhile, ominously, the state-oriented Russian TV channel Russia Today showed viewers a map of Russia into which Crimea had already been incorporated. And the Crimean regional government’s parliament voted to hold a referendum to secede from Ukraine, to be held on 16 March — i.e. in 10 days time. That not only violates Ukraine’s constitution but would also make any proper debate about the pros and cons of the status quo, independence, devo max or incorporation into Russia impossible. So the situation remains extremely tense. However, the EU is right to try to pursue the diplomatic route — while offering financial and moral assistance to the provisional government in Kiev — rather than inflaming the situation further.

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The ALDE Leadership Deal

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 3rd February, 2014

Olli RehnGuy VerhofstadtThe Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) held a special congress in Brussels at the weekend, to elect the Party’s candidate for President of the European Commission. At least, that is what the meeting was originally intended to do, with delegates from all over Europe (paying our own way, incidentally) gathering to choose between the Finnish Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, Olli Rehn, and the head of the ALDE group in the European Parliament and former Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt. The two men are as different as chalk and cheese, the former dourly northern European, the latter almost Mediterranean in his flamboyant enthusiasm. It would have been fun to have a proper, competitive debate between the two and then a vote (which I suspect the overtly federalist Verhofstadt would have won), but recently the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and a German colleague put a deal together according to which Vehofstadt would indeed be the ALDE candidate for Commission President and Olli Rehn would be put up for some other plum EU job. Verhofstadt is extremely unlikely to actually become Commission President, unless neither the EPP (centre right) nor the Socialists manages to get their candidate chosen), though Rehn should get something. UK Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg had made no secret that he preferred Rehn, as the “safe” alternative. Anyway, for us poor delegates, deprived of a real election, all we could do was say “yay” or “nay” to the deal. Many Brits voted “nay” (or abstained), in my case as a protest at the way the deal had been put together. But Verhofstadt was duly endorsed by a very comfortable margin. He’ll certainly add colour to the European election campaign, though not necessarily the sort of colour Nick Clegg and Co will appreciate.

Link: http://www.aldeparty.eu

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Why the ECHR Matters

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 10th June, 2013

European Court of Human RightsECHRThe European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and its associated Court in Strasbourg is a favourite Aunt Sally of right-wing Conservative MPs and Britain’s tabloid Press (which these days, alas, includes the broadsheet Daily Telegraph), but unjustly so. The Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as it is more formally known, has since its drafting in 1950 and later adoption by the Council or Europe done a huge amount of useful work in promoting the Rule of Law throughout Europe (including Eastern Europe, Russia and Turkey; only the dictatorship of Belarus is outside the fold), as well as providing individuals who feel their rights have been violated by their own State to seek redress. Despite the fact that the Court is a separate institution from the European Union it still gets tarred with the Brussels brush by virulent Europhobes, who seem to believe that the United Kingdom has completely abandoned its national sovereignty to foreigners — not that many of these anti-Europeans seem particularly worried about the fact that US influence is far more marked in various aspects of British public and foreign policy, not to mention our culture. Two things have been like juicy bones to these frothing xenophobic hounds. First, the Court’s ruling that it was wrong for the UK to deprive all prisoners of their rights to vote, no matter how short their sentence or trivial their offence. Theresa May could easily have got round that issue by accepting that prisoners with a sentence of less than six months should still retain their vote, but others not — a compromise that would have satisfied Strasbourg. The other even more famous ECHR “outrage”, of course, relates to the prolonged delay in the expulsion of the vile Islamist extremist Abu Qatada because there has not been up till now a credible assurance from his home country, Jordan, that evidence that might be used against him in any trial in Amman would not have been obtained by torture. Now I, like almost everyone in this country, long to see the back of Abu Qatada, who has milked the system here, including claiming benefits. But we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater by saying, oh well, as he is so wicked it does not matter if witnesses against him have been tortured. When we accept that, then we surrender our commitment to human rights (as the last Labour government alas did, with respect to extraordinary rendition). Moreover, it is utter nonsense for Theresa May to float the idea — seized on by relish by some of her backbench MPs and the right-wing Press — that Britain could temporarily withdraw from ECHR so it can expel Abu Qatada, then reapply once he is out of the way. Anyone who knows anything about International Law and diplomacy knows that is shamelessly playing to the gallery while undermining the very foundations of our credibility as a nation. What is really lacking, I believe, is a concerted campaign in Britain to champion what the ECHR actually achieves, in which politicians, NGOs and the enlightened media should participate. It is not just the future of our involvement with the Strasbourg Court that is at stake but our values as well.

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Why I Want to Be an MEP

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 2nd November, 2012

Today ballot papers started arriving at the homes of Liberal Democrat members in London so they can choose the order of the list of candidates for the European elections in 2014. There are nine candidates for eight places (a tenth, Elaine Bagshawe, has withdrawn). The Liberal Democrats are a democratic party, so everyone who has been a member for longer than a year gets the chance to take part by single transferable vote (STV). In 2004 and 2009 I was Number 2 on the list, and as such just missed actually getting elected to the European Parliament by a whisker, so no-one can be surprised that I’m going for Number 1 this time. Being an MEP is something I have always wanted, more than any other form of political office, though I did serve as a borough councillor for a while. I used to cover the European Parliament and other European institutions when I was based in Brussels, originally with Reuters but later freelance. In the early days it was something of a talking shop, whose members were appointed by their national parliaments and had almost no power. But in 1979 there were direct elections for the first time, giving the institution more democratic legitimacy. In Britain these were on a first-past-the post system in large constituencies, in London’s case usually comprising three boroughs (I fought London South East, which was made up of Bexley, Bromley and Greenwich). But in 1999, the Labour government rightly bowed to pressure from our continental partners to adopt a fairer, more proportional system.

I have often attended events at the parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg (yes, of course I am in favour of the abolition of the wasteful shuttle between the two!) and for many years I have been an elected member of the governing Council of the ELDR — the European Liberal Democrat and Reformist party, which groups like-minded parties from across Europe, including a number of states not currently members of the EU. In fact, this time next week I’ll be in Dublin at the 2012 Congress of ELDR. This moves round Europe, partly to give a boost to the host party; the last ELDR event I attended was in Yerevan, Armenia, in May. The Parliament itself now has much stronger powers than it did in the past, with many major decisions now being subject to ‘co-decision’ between the Parliament and the Council of Ministers (which is made up of Ministers from the governments of the 27 member states). MEPs usually sit on a couple of major committees; my choice ideally would be in EU external policy/foreign affairs and overseas development, but of course London concerns would figure large among my priorities, including the use of European structural funds to help create jobs and foster regenration in deprived areas of the capital, including my own home borough, Tower Hamlets. Because of my professional background, obviously culture, media and related issues are also of great interest. In fact, I write regularly for the culture website of the European Commission’s London representation. And I agree with EU founding father John Monnet that one thing maybe the European project should have stressed earlier and more strongly at the beginning is the crucial value of culture, identity and diversity.

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Bojo for PM?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th August, 2012

The euphoria over TeamGB’s triumphs at the London Olympics over the past few days, as well as the boost to national morale that the Games have been giving, has caused a flurry of speculation about whether London Mayor Boris Johnson could become the next leader of the Conservative Party and therefore possibly Prime Minister. He always denies that this is his ambition but I doubt whether he would turn down the opportunity if it came along. Of course, he would have to get back into the House of Commons to do so, but that would not be difficult if a safe Conservative seat comes up at a by-election – definitely not Louise Mensch’s Corby, incidentally! Boris’s great advantage is that he appeals to many non-Tory voters — indeed to many people who don’t normally vote at all, including youngsters. Thus he was able to defy national opinion polls and retain the London mayoralty in May (though Labour made a big mistake in choosing tired and tarnished Ken Livingstone as their candidate again). There is a mixture of brilliance and buffoonery in Boris that is sometimes irritating but often endearing. Who else could have been left dangling from a wire during a slightly misfired stunt near the London Eye at the weekend and keep their reputation intact? And he has a way with words, like a boy’s own cartoon figure. I first came across him in Brussels when he was a boy, as I knew his parents Stanley (a writer then working at the European Commission) and Charlotte (an extraordinary artist). Boris returned to Brussels later for an ill-fated stint as a reporter covering the EU, when he lost his job for not letting facts get in the way of a good story. But his wit and verve and sheer cheek eventually won through, making him now one of the most highly paid newspaper columnists in the country. One thing is certain: in comparison with Boris, David Cameron looks insipid. But does that mean Boris would make a better Prime Minister, despite Cameron’s mistakes in government? That I doubt. One can clown about as Mayor of London; in fact it gives the job some panache. But that’s not an act that would transfer well to 10 Downing Street.

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Stanley Johnson Amongst the Wild Things

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th July, 2012

The Johnson clan was out in force this evening at Daunt’s Books in Marylebone High Street, for the launch of Stanley Johnson’s latest book: Where the Wild Things Were (Stacey International, £8.99) — a paperback collection of his travel and environmental journalism. Stanley has form in the environmental field; I first met him when we were both in Brussels in the 1970s, he at the European Commission working on pollution et al and me as a journalist covering the European instiutions; both of us moonlighted for the Capital of Europe’s English weekly magazine, The Bulletin. He went on to become a Conservative MEP, but later failed to get elected for the Lib Dem/Tory marginal of Teignmouth in the British parliament. Two of his sons — Boris and Jo — did succeed in getting in to the Commons; Boris in Henley, before changing gear and becoming Mayor of London, and Jo in Orpington (my old political stomping ground). Both were at the book launch tonight, along with younger brother Max and other Johnsons and in-laws and  various Tory grandees, including Norman Lamont, Leon Brittan and Michael Howard, and le beau monde. Boris’s arrival, dishevilled and bearing a large backpack, excited the paparazzi present. But the important thing is the underlying message of the book: the need to protect endangered species, from tigers to gorillas. In fact, Stanley is currently Chairman of the Gorilla Organisation and an Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). As always with the Johnsons, there are lashings of humour and posturing, but behind it all there is serious intent.

Link: www.stacey-international.co.uk

 

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Europe’s Parliament

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 5th June, 2012

The European Parliament is little understood and in England, at least, much misrepresented. This is largely the fault of the British media, most of which either ignores or lampoons the institution. But many UK politicians — including some MEPs — share the blame. One expects UKIP to be misleading and nasty; after all, they want Britain out of the European Union (though I am sure the UKIP MEPs would be the first to bemoan their consequent loss of salary). But an alarming number of Tories also take part in the ritualistic slagging-off of the EU in general and the Parliament in particular. Three of the worst Conservative offenders in the last parliament, were Daniel Hannan (still there), Roger Helmer and Chris Heaton-Harris; they were apparently known to their fellow MEPs as “The H Block”. That is one of the myriad facts that even a longstanding observer of the European Parliament such as myself picked up from a new book: Europe’s Parliament (John Harper Publishing, £29), by Julian Priestley and Stephen Clark. Julian was an Oxford contemporary of mine, and our paths crossed again when I started covering the then appointed European Parliament in Strasbourg and Luxembourg for Reuters in 1974, when he was a junior official. He rose to become the Parliament’s Secretary General, and it is not difficult to work out which parts of this weighty but accessibly-written tome came from his pen. I particularly relished the description of Andrew Duff (LibDem MEP for the East of England) as an Ayatollah among the group of revolutionary constitutionalists. Inevitably the choice of personalities is somewhat subjective. Nigel Farrage, UKIP’s Leader, gets more than his fair share, whereas Sharon Bowles (the South East LibDem MEP who is sometimes rather grandly described as the most powerful women in European financial circles) doesn’t get a mention. The French and Germans not surprisingly receive full coverage, as they have been so key to the Parliament’s development. The early part of the book is largely about the three parliamentary sites and their buildings, which I fear will be red rag to the Eurosceptic bulls. Luxembourg now merely houses officials, but there is still a ridiculous and ridiculously expensive moving cricus of MEPs and hangers-on between Brussels and Strasboug each month, despite the valiant efforts of Edward McMillan-Scott and others to press for a Single Seat. That would, alas, require a Treaty change, which can only happen by unanimity; no prizes for guessing which country would block Strasbourg’s demise (though as Priestley and Clark point out, many Germans have a strong attachment to the Alsace city too. The book is probably too hefty to be of much direct use in schools, but certainly it will appeal to politics undergraduates, journalists and politicos, not least aspirant MEPs such as myself.

Link: www.johnharperpublishing.co.uk

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Rediscovering the Joys of Cinema

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th March, 2012

When I was a kid, I used to love to go to the local cinema for the Saturday matinées: two feature films, with some cartoon shorts in between, all for the price of sixpence. Later, I remember sitting through the animated film 101 Dalmations (Walt Disney, 1961) in two consecutive screenings. The only other time I’ve done that was much more recently: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), on a long distance plane journey. At university the cinema was my main form of entertainment and I was fortunate soon after resigning from being a Reuters correspondent in Brussels to be offered the part-time job of film critic for the Belgian English-language magazine The Bulletin. This entailed two daytime screenings on Mondays and Tuesdays (with drinks in between, provided by the distributor) and one on Wednesday morning. In the course of six or seven years I thus saw many hundreds of films, some brilliant, many indifferent and a depressing amount appalling. One plus side to the assignment was that I usually got to meet film directors and actors when they were in town, but I have to say that by the time I returned to London I was sated. I hardly went to the cinema again for a decade or more. In fact, it is only since I happened to catch Niels Arden Oplev’s Swedish-language The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), being screened in the open air on the top deck of a cruise ship on which I was lecturing in the eastern Mediterranean last year, that I felt a sudden pang of nostalgia. What’s more, this prompted me to go regularly to the cinema again, notably to my local in the East End, Genesis, which does a £3.50 ticket for concessions. I’ve been lucky recently with a whole series of great films, from Hugo to The Artist and The Iron Lady. And I hope experience and the trailers will help me avoid the sort of lulus I sometimes used to have to sit through in Brussels.

 

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Sakharov Prize 2011

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 9th December, 2011

Next week, at a formal session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought will be awarded to five representatives of the Arab Spring movement: posthumously to the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation partly triggered the whole new Arab Awakening; Asmaa Mafouz (Egypt), Ahmed al-Zubair Ahmed al-Sanusi (Libya), Razan Zeitouneh and Ali Farzat (both Syria). The Prize is named after the Soviet physicist and political dissdent Andrei Sakharov and has been awarded annually by the European Parliament since 1988 to individuals or organizations who have made an important contribution to the fight for human rights or democracy. Last year’s laureate was Guillermo Farinas from Cuba, whose government refused to allow him to travel to France to collect it. Here in London, the European Parliament representation hosted an event at Europe House on Thursday, to mark the prize, though the subject was not the Arab Spring but rather the broad issue of human rights, and in particular attempts in Britain to get rid of the Human Rights Act and thereby disassociate ourselves from some of the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR, which is a product of the Council or Europe, not the European Union, of course). The Conservative MP Robert Buckland and Conservative MEP Charles Tannock, from slightly different perspectives, argued how they thought Britain would be better off with its own legislative provisions, but Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, fiercely defended the Council of Europe and the ECHR, and from the rumblings in the audience, including from some pro-Euro Tories, the majority were on her side. Incidentally, had we known what David Cameron was going to do at the EU Summit in Brussels subsequently, I suspect the rumbings would have been more like howls of outrage.

Link: www.sakharovprize.europa.eu

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