Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘ELDR’

Turkey-EU: Revisiting Common Interests

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 9th November, 2012

The European Union is missing an opportunity in not facilitating Turkey’s membership of the EU, according to Rizanur Meral, President of TUSKON, the Confederation of Turkish Businessmen and Industrialists. He was speaking at a fringe meeting of the Congress of the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR) in Dublin this lunchtime and stressed the demographic benefit of Turkish membership for an ageing Europe. Moreover, the Turkish economy is growing: over 8% per annum in 2010 and 2011, and although this is likely to fall back to 3.5% this year that is considerably better than in the current EU member states. Over the past 10 years, per capita income in Turkey has trebled, which means that it is no longer such a poor neighbour either, and it is still seen as something of a model by other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Mr Meral argued. Somewhat less optimistic was the view put forward by Andrew Duff, LibDem MEP for the East of England and a longstanding member of the European Parliament’s committee relating to Turkey. Andrew bemoaned the fact that the political reform process in Turkey seems to have slowed and declared that probably what was needed was a completely new constitution. ‘Citizens in Turkey are still treated as if it is their job to serve the State,’ he said, ‘whereas in Europe since the Second World War that assumption has been turned on its head.’ Andrew also proposed that Turkey should be offered a form of associate membership of the EU, as there is no chance in the foreseeable future of full membership, despite Ankara’s application being on the table for so long. When he raised this prospect at a fringe meeting at the LibDems’ autumn conference in Brighton recently, Andrew received a giant metaphorical raspberry from the Turkish Ambassador to the UK, and he appeared to have little support in the room today for the proposition either. Nonetheless, one would be blind to ignore the problems. One chink of hope is that the Irish presidency, which will start on 1 January 2013, has indicated it is willing to open new chapters in the accession negotiations with Turkey — though whether countries such as France, Germany and Austria would agree is another matter.

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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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European Liberal Democrats in the Caucasus

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 13th May, 2012

It was daring — even brave — of the Armenian National Movement to invite the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR) to convene a Council meeting in Yerevan this week, only days after general elections were held in Armenia, about which they have cried foul. ELDR has never had a meeting on such a scale in the Caucasus before, but it was doubly valuable for European Liberal Democrat Council members as the Liberal International organised a side-trip fact-finding mission to Georgia beforehand. I was involved in both, as the (UK) Liberal Democrats’ representative on the Executive of Liberal International and an elected member of the ELDR Council. I was in Armenia six years ago, travelling widely around the country, so it was fascinating to see how the capital Yerevan has been rapidly modernising, though the countryside has changed little and indeed gives the feeling of still being back in the Soviet era, only friendlier. But there was also a big contrast between Georgia (a first for me) and Armenia. In Tbilisi, our Georgian hosts — the Georgia Dream coalition — gave a very critical appraisal of how they see democracy fumctioning in their homeland, whereas the government — who looked after us for half a day — put a different spin on the state of affairs. But whoever was right about whichever issues there is no denying that Georgia is a place willing itself onto an upward trajectory, much aided by the abolition of widespread earlier corruption and personal insecurity. Most Georgians are anxious to get into NATO and one day into the EU as well; the 12-Star flag of Europe is prominant everywhere alongside the Georgian red cross. We were taken to the Line of Occupation on the edge of South Ossetia to remind us of just how close and real the Russian occupational presence is. In Armenia, in contrast, there is more of a Russian flavour to the capital, but of course there is also a big influence of the Armenian expatriate community from France and the United States, some of whom are presumably financing the massive amount of reconstruction going on. In the ELDR Council and contiguous special sessions we heard a lot from NGOs and others about alleged irregularities in last Sunday’s poll. But there was also, among other things, a fascinating session on LGBT Rights in the South Caucasus, organised in conjunction with the two Dutch Liberal parties (the VVD and D66) as well as International Liberal Youth (IFLRY). Just days ago a gay-friendly bar in Yerevan was set alight by far right activists, but nonetheless there is a lot of positive conscious-raising on equality issues (even in Georgia, where over 90% of the population say they disapprove of LGBT activism). The black hole as far as the Armenians are concerned seems to be Azerbaijan, but as I know from a visit there not all that long ago, things are modernising apace in Baku, financed by oil money, even if the regime is pretty authoritarian. All in all, the Caucasus is a region with huge political and economic potential, desperate to be seen as European, while at the same time retaining its diverse specificities.

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Chinese Liberal Democrat Dragons

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 2nd February, 2012

Chinese New Year, like Christmas, is an extendable feast, so there was still a vibrant celebratory spirit when Chinese Liberal Democrats (CLD) filled the whole of the large Tuli Chinese Restaurant by London Bridge station in Southwark this evening. There was a serious fundraising side to the affair, for the May London Mayoral and GLA elections, so the LibDems’ Mayoral candidate, Brian Paddick, was much in evidence, alongside a number of the party’s impressive and very multicultural GLA candidates, including Merlene Emerson, the Singapore-born Chair of CLD. She had put a huge amount of effort into organising the event and co-presented it along with the irrepressible Joseph Wu, formerly of Spectrum Radio but now working mainly (on a non-party political basis)  to encourage British Chinese to register to vote and to use their vote in all elections. It was pointed out that the LibDems have more ethnic Chinese councillors than any other party, and of course our sister party, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, has a Chinese member of Stormont too. Guest speakers at the 12-course banquet were Sir Graham Watson, President of the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR) — who used to work for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and still keeps a keen interest in EU-China affairs — and Lord (Tim) Clement-Jones, long-time party grandee, whose main claim to fame this evening he declared was having a Chinese mother-in-law. The food was remarkably authentic, unlike that in most Chinese restaurants in London, and we were entertained between courses by a very flirtatious dancing lion and an exhibition of Chinese martial arts. This New Year, as everyone should know by now, is the Year of the Dragon and it was underlined that in China dragons are far friendlier creatures than those of Western legends. So perhaps Merlene Emerson and her predecessor as Chair of CLD, Cllr Linda Chung of Hampstead (who was of course also present tonight), won’t mind my calling them the two Dragon Empresses of London Liberal Democrats, whose work promoting the values of liberal democracy within the Chinese community has been exemplary.

Link: http://chineselibdems.org.uk

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Diana Wallis’s Long Shot

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 16th January, 2012

Tomorrow, members of the European Parliament will have the chance to vote for a new President — what in Britain we would normally call a Speaker or Presiding Officer (incidentally, there are too many presidnets in the EU set-up, which is one small reason among many larger ones why the British tabloids make fun of it). The contest rarely gets much coverage in the UK media, which is hardly surprising, as for some time it has been a stitch-up between the two big blocs in the Parliament, the EPP (Christian Democrats and allies) and the Socialists. So everyone is expecting that the German Socialist Martin Schulz will seemlessly take over from the Polish centre-right Jerzy Buzek. The two men are very different in character and style — Schulz is much more fiery and unpredictable than the urbane Buzek — but that won’t cover up the fact that this is a “buggins turn” situation, and yet another reason why the European Parliament and the EU in general are easy targets for the Eurosceptics’ fire. In keeping with the convention of the stitch-up, there is no EPP candidate challenging Martin Schulz. But there are two Brits who have put their hats in the ring, in the interests of true democracy. One is the maverick Conservative Nirj Deva, from the loopy right-wing ragbag European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), into which David Cameron exiled the British Conservative MEPs after breaking with the EPP. Deva should pick up some support from his colleagues in that. But the other contender, more significantly, is Diana Wallis, LibDem MEP for Yorkshire and Humberside (and therefore a member of the European Liberal Democrats Group – ELDR), who was a Vice-President of the Parliament in the last session. Though she knows she has little chance of undoing the EPP-Socialists’ cosy stitch-up, she has been campaigning hard, systematically working round as many of the 750-odd MEPs as possible, calling for more transparency in the EP system. As she defines it herself, her campaign has been in the pursuit of a more open and positive European Parliament. ‘I also wanted to reach out to show the possibility of a deeper engagement with all European citizens,’ she says. ‘The actions and decisions of the members of the European Parliament will always be insufficient if all Europeans do not feel that the Parliament belongs to them.’ Hear Hear! She won’t win, as the informal system is stacked against her. But she deserves a good vote and congratulations for standing up for democratic principles.

Link: http://dianawallisep.blogspot.com

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LibDems Must Stand Firm on Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd January, 2012

There have been a lot of disquieting rumours flying around the past few days that some LibDem parliamentarians and other senior figures in the Party are considering finding common ground with Conservative Euro-sceptics (or Europhobes, as they ought to be called). If true, this is a dangerous development, though I suspect it has been exaggerated in online media. The Liberal Democrats have long espoused the European Project and many people who joined the party — including former members of both the Conservative and Labour parties — did so because the LibDems have been unequivocal in arguing that European integration is vital for the longterm security and prosperity of our continent and that Britain ought to be at the heart of Europe, not floating ever further off-shore. Of course not everything about the EU is good, let alone perfect, but reform comes best from within, not from the sidelines. And the ongoing crisis over the euro illustrates the need for more effective European cooperation, not less. This was stated very eloquently at the ELDR (European Liberal Democrats) Congress in Palermo last November, with the full agreement of the large British Liberal Democrat delegation. The Tory Eurosceptics are on a roll because of their ‘victory’ in getting David Cameron to refuse to back measures put forward at the last Brussels Summit. But that is not a reason for Liberal Democrats in government to endorse any weakening of Britain’s position within the EU, or to push for the so-called repatriation of powers. That is a road that leads firmly to the exit door, which is what the Daily Mail and the Tory Eurosceptics of course want. But it is completely contrary to Liberal Democrat policy and should remain so.

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ELDR Congress Palermo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 26th November, 2011

There has been a distinctively festive air at the ELDR Congress in Palermo, Sicily, over the past few days, not because the eurozone’s crisis has markedly eased — it hasn’t — but because the Italians are feeling a sense of huge relief at getting rid of Silvio Berlusconi. Our hosts have been Italia dei Valori, who have been working hard to put some integrity back into Italian politics; one can only wish them well, and trust that former EU Commissioner Mario Monti, the newly appointed Italian Prime Minister, can help steer Italy out of its economic whirlpool. The EU budget was the principal theme of the Congress, though I was personally much more motivated by the parralel debates and workshop on the so-called Arab Sprin and how Europe should engage with it; boosting trade with the region was the answer provided by EU Commissioner Karel de Gucht, but I would argue that building a greater sense of solidarity between the peoples of Europe and North Africa and the Middle East is equally important. De Gucht also led the tributes to Annemie Nuyts, the Flemish Liberal who has been President of ELDR for the past six years. Her valedictory speech was rather downbeat, noting that whereas five years ago the ELDR encompassed 10 Prime Ministers, now there are only two (Estonia and the Netherlands). However, her compatriot Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian Prime Minister and now leader of the ALDE (Liberal) Group in the European Parliament, gave a barnstorming performance that raised all our spirits and there was a fittnig finale to the formal part of the proceedings with a speech by incoming ELDR President, Sir Graham Watson, South West England MEP and former ALDE leader,who set out his vision of where ELDR should be heading — very much onwards and upwards.

Link: http://www.eldr.eu

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ELDR Council in Dresden

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 21st May, 2011

There was a time, not all that many years ago, when most of the meetings of the governing Council of the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR) were held in Brussels. But these days they occur all over the Continent, both to give the participants a taste of the local sister party and its activities as well as to generate some publicity in the city or country concerned. Thanks to the German Free Democrats (FDP), this weekend’s Council was in Dresden, capital of the Free State of Saxony and known as Paris on the Elbe before the British bombed it to smithereens during the Second World War. Although I did travel a lot in the old DDR (East Germany), I had never been to Dresden until now, so it was interesting to see how much of the old city — including the celebrated Frauenkirche — has been rebuilt or refurbished, especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Saxony had a standard of living well below the European Union average when German reunification took place, but the city benefited greatly from funds made available under the EU’s Cohesion Policy, which was the subject of a seminar attached to the Council meeting. It was good to hear from several Saxon state Ministers at the event, as well as the UK LibDems’ own Flo Clucas, who extolled how EU funds had helped Liverpool regenerate once the Trots were ousted from control of that city. The ELDR Council itself is largely an administrative affair (including the passing of urgency resolutions on such issues as human rights in Russia and threats to the Schengen Agreement), but there was a worthwhile session led by Mohammed Nosseir of Egypt’s Democratic Front on how Europe should respond to the Arab Awakening — a theme much preoccupying me at the moment and one which the ELDR will doubtless return to at its Congress in Palermo in November.

Link: http://eldr.eu

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Sam Rainsy and Cambodian Child Prostitution

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd October, 2010

The shocking reality of child prostitution in Cambodia today was the focus of a fringe meeting at the recent ELDR Congress in Helsinki, at which the country’s Leader of the Opposition, Sam Rainsy, was a guest of honour. A mortifying film was shown, which included interviews with current and former child prostitutes — mostly girls, but one boy — as well as some details of how members of Sam Rainsy’s party (along with some extremely brave local women) have been trying to help rehabilitate them and bring some of the abusive brothel owners and clients to justice. That is a horrendously difficult task in a country in which the police and the courts are susceptible to bribery and Sam Rainsy’s party has seen over 50 of its activists assassinated. Sam himself is currently having to live in exile in Paris, as he has been sentenced to 10 years in prison (for perfectly legitimate political activity), which the Cambodian courts say would be added to a previous two-year conviction if he were to return to Pnomh Penh. The most chilling parts of the child prostitution film dealt with the mothers who effectively sold their daughters into prostitution. One was so traumatised by what had happened to her and her family during the murderous years of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge that she said she would do it again. There are several international NGOs working to curb sex tourism involving minors in South East Asia, and several European governments have passed laws making it possible to charge their nationals who abuse children while in Cambodia. But as was underlined by the film, the vast majority of the brothels’ clients, sometimes paying a lot of money to take a young girl’s virginity, were locals, many of them powerful and viscious enough to be untouchable by justice.

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European Liberals and Media Freedom

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 14th March, 2010

The governing Council of the European Liberals Democrats (ELDR) met in Rome this weekend, against a backdrop of public sector strikes and a massive demonstration against the Italian Prime Minister and media mogul, Silvio Berlusconi. Few of the Council members present (with the exception, perhaps, of our Russian colleagues from Yabloko) could have envied he Italians’ situation — operating in a country in which one man wields such enormous power and is shameless about using legislation to protect his position. On top of that, the mafia and other organised crime outfits have a terrible hold on many sectors of the economy. No wonder Italian Liberals (whose main political grouping these days is Italia de Valori) look north across the Alps to the EU for stability and support.

Yesterday morning, there was a seminar session on Freedom of Information, at which I was a keynote speaker talking about freedom of the media across the EU. Those of us who work as jsnalists in the UK are comparatively fortunate in the freedom we do enjoy to express our views (providing we don’t libel anyone or endanger national security), but the recent case relating to the News of the World suggests that our system of media self-regulations (through the Press Complaints Commission) needs an overhaul. I devoted much of my speech to new media, however, and the way that so-called ‘citizen journalism’ (whereby orindary people can report and comment through blogs, twitter etc, is transforming the name of the game. Sometimes this is in positive ways, such as the transmission of eye-witness accounts or of alternative perspectives. But there are also negative sides to citizen journalism, not least the lack of editorial control and standards, which means that a lot of the material out there on the Net is rubbish or outright lies.

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