Every week the Liberal Democrat MEP for South West England, Sir Graham Watson, sends out an email newsletter to constituents and other interested subscribers telling them what he has been doing over the previous seven days. It’s deliberately short and written in accessible language, making it lively and user-friendly. Today, at a lunchtime fringe at the ELDR Congress in Dublin, Graham launched a book of his collected newsletters from the past few years, illustrated also with photographs. He admitted that some of his ephemeral pronouncements were proved incorrect later — for example just how easily (or not) the European Commission President Barroso would get his fellow Commissioners approved by the European Parliament. But he urged those of us who are involved in politics to record what we do and say as others can learn from our mistakes as well as from our example. Graham deliberately gave the book the title “Letters from Europe” to underline the fact that in contrast to his childhood, when people talked about the British Isles as being part of Europe along with the Continent, these days the national narrative has shifted, so that the British usually talk about going to or coming from Europe, as if the UK has somehow been cut adrift. As Graham pointed out in his brief remarkls at the launch, Sir Winston Churchill had a much better grasp of the concept of a wider patriotism than most Little Englanders today. The book is edited by Graham’s research assistant Andrew Burgess and is published by Bagehot Publishing, price €10.
Posts Tagged ‘Graham Watson’
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 10th November, 2012
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 17th January, 2012
As expected. Martin Schulz of the Socialist Group (S&D) was elected by MEPs to be the new President of the European Parliament today, taking over from former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek of the centre-right Christian Democrats (EPP). But his majority was not a landslide, despite the traditional stitch-up between the two main political groups in the parliament. Two British challengers, Diana Wallis from the LibDems (and therefore ALDE) and Nirj Deva of the Conservatives (ECR) did pick up quite a a lot of support from disaffected main party MEPs as well as from members of their own minority groups. The system is a farce, and does nothing to enhance the already shaky reputation of the European Parliament amongst the electorate across the EU’s 27 member states. Sir Graham Watson, former ALDE leader and now President of the ELDR (European Liberal Democrats, which also also embraces parties from European states outside the EU) was one of the first to tilt Don Quixote-like at the windmills of the Euro-parliamentary structure and Diana Wallis deserves credit for picking up the baton with panache. Meanwhile, few people in Britain, other than Euro-political nerds, will have any idea who Martin Schulz is. After all, most of the British electorate cannot name a single one of their own MEPs, so why should they have heard of a German one? But this is a pity, to say the least. The British public is poorly served by domestic media coverage of the European Parliament and its doings, in stark contrast to the citizens of Spain, for example. Anyway, it is worth knowing something about the man who will be presiding over sessions of the Parliament for the next two-and-a-half years. Born in an area where the German, Dutch and Belgian borders meet, Martin Schulz is unusual amongst MEPs in being a bookseller by profession; he ran his own bookshop in Wuerselen from 1982 to 1994. But he was politically motivated from an early age. He joined the German Social Democratic Party at the age of 19, and 12 years later, he was elected Mayor of Wuerselen. According to his official European Parliament potted biography, this experience ’shaped my enthusiasm for Europe and the conviction that I wanted to help build and advance the European project.’ So no doubts there about how the new President wants to further the cause of European integration. But it will be interesting to see how he handles debates as he is a more fiery character than Jerzy Buzek, who has aptly been described by Andrew Duff MEP as ‘gentlemanly’. A few fireworks might be no bad thing, as they might attract to the Parliament a little more of the attention that it definitely deserves as it accrues more powers and influence in the decision- and law-making processes of the EU.
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.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 8th November, 2011
Fair Trials International (previously known as Fair Trials Abroad) is a unique UK-based organisation which campaigns on behalf of people unjustly or cruelly imprisoned around the world, notably those who have been waiting years for a trial or else have been extradited unfairly, or convicted in absentia. Although its remit is global, a substantial proportion of FTI’s work, surprisingly, relates to the European Union, under a project entitled Justice in Europe (part funded by the European Commission). The legal system in a number of EU states does not live up to the high standard of some others, as victims such as Andrew Symeou (who was extradited to Greece and held in horrible conditions before being aquitted) and Edmond Arapi (an Albanian now naturalised Briton who was wrongly convicted of murder in absentia in Italy) can testify. As members of the British Section of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) were told this lunchtime at a meeting in Europe House by FTI’s Chief Executive, Jago Russell, many of the cases his organisation takes up are related to the European Arrest Warrant. This instrument — brought in following the 9/11 atrocities with the support of various parties, not least the LibDem MEP Graham Watson — allows courts in EU member states to demand the extradition of people wanted on criminal charges within their jurisdiction. That has produced some excellent results, such as the swift return of one of the 7/7 London bombers from Italy. But it has also been misusued. Poland has acquired an unenviable reputation for using the EAW for trivial cases, such as demanding the extradition of someone accused of stealing a pig. But it would be wrong to throw the baby out with the bathwater — as some Eurosceptic Tories and UKIP spokespeople would like — by scrapping the EAW. What is needed is to make sure its use is limited to serious crimes. Moreover, as Jago Russell said, some EU member states really need to bring their legal and prison systems up to scratch, including getting rid of corruption, nepotism and the like. I asked him whether it should not be possible to put pressure on Poland to curb unnecessary extraditions while Warsaw holds the rotating presidency of the EU, to which the answer was that the Poles would love to, but under their post-Communist constitution they have to pursue every case to its ultimate conclusion. Clearly a need for some reform there then!
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: AEJ, Andrew Symeou, Edmond Arapi, Europe House, European Arrest Warrant, European Commission, Fair Trials Abroad, Fair Trials International, Graham Watson, Jago Russell, Justice in Europe, Poland | 1 Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 9th November, 2010
When direct elections to the European Parliament were first introduced in 1979, not a single British Liberal was returned, as the first-past-the-post electoral system was still in place and Liberal support was too concentrated in pockets. But Graham Watson and Robin Teverson defied sceptics by winning two Euro-seats in the West Country in 1994, and with the introduction of the (fiendishly complex) d’Hondt method of proportional representation in 1999, the Liberal Democrat tally shot up to 10 (now 12). That has ensured not only that British Liberal Democrats have a strong voice in the European Parliament but also that they form the largest single national group within the European Liberal family. It was partly as a result of that that Graham Watson became leader of the third force in the Parliament, which he then set about ‘growing’, by wooing all sorts of parties and individuals (some more identifiably Liberal than others), until at its height, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), as the parliamentary group is called, had over 100 MEPs. This process did not occur without some concern, as Graham makes clear in his new book Building a Liberal Europe: The ALDE Project (John Harper, 20 pounds or 25 euros). Some of the core members of the European Liberal Democrat and Reformist Party (ELDR) around which ALDE coalesced had reservations about Graham’s strategy of ‘bigger is better’ and were incredulous when he embarked on his frankly unrealistic personal project to try to become President of the Parliament last year. Now no longer leader of ALDE (the former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt succeeded him), Graham has instead had time to compile this survey of how the Liberal Euro-parliamentary group developed and the various political issues that members of the group pursued, individually or collectively. Because these are so numerous, and readers’ interests will vary, some pages of the book will be of more interest than others. Most of the British LibDem MEPs get a name-check at least and one is left in no doubt about how wide the author’s network both within and beyond the ALDE group has been. It’s a pity, though, that with the notable exception of a striking vignette of Nicolas Sarkozy in the Elysee Palace and to a lesser extent Silvio Berlusconi, most characters in the book fail to come alive. Graham himself comes across as rather cold and calculating (for example, describing the way he wined and dined ‘expensively’ in Brussels his colleagues, in order to try to win their support), though as I know from more than 30 years of friendship with him, that is not a fair self-portrayal. For better or for worse, he is no Peter Mandelson either. While academics and Liberal Euro-enthusiasts such as me will find lots of interest in Building a Liberal Europe, those avid for gossip will be disappointed.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 3rd July, 2009
The ALDE (Liberal) Group in the new European Parliament has chosen the Flemish Liberal and former Prime Minister of Belgium, Guy Verhofstadt, to be its new leader. He takes over from the British (South West England) Liberal Democrat MEP Graham Watson, who has meanwhile thrown his hat into the ring to try to be the new President of the parliament. Under Graham’s stewardship, ALDE grew to just over 100 members within the previous, larger, parliament. The British were the biggest national contingent in ALDE then, but they were overtaken by the Germans this time as a result of the FDP’s impressive surge in last month’s elections. As the Germans seem to be getting the leadership of the other major party groupings in the European Parliament, however, it is probably as well that they didn’t get handed ALDE as well.
Besides, Guy Verhofstadt is a sizeable and experienced political figure in his own right, even if his last attempts at forming a government in Belgium came to naught. In the 1980s, when he was a very young star in the Flemish political firmament, he became known as ‘Baby Thatcher’ for his economic liberalism, but he has softened since then, reportedly under the influence of his brother Dirk, who is a social liberal political philosopher. Guy Verhofstadt has spoken at Liberal Democrat Conference in the UK and even if he probably still would not figure in most Brits’ list of Ten Famous Belgians, his new role will undoubtedly raise his profile more even in this blinkered island nation. His commitment to the European project is without doubt. Following his election as ALDE group leader, he declared, ‘Europe is not the problem but the solution to the problems we are facing at the moment. We need more, not less Europe.’
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: ALDE, Baby Thatcher, Belgium, Dirk Verhofstadt, European Parliament, FDP, Flemish Liberals, Graham Watson, Guy Verhofstadt, Liberal Democrats, ten famous Belgians | 1 Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd March, 2009
Ireland’s ruling Fianna Fail is on its way to join the UK Liberal Democrats and other European Liberal parties in the continent-wide European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party (ELDR), according to the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Brian Cowen. Successful integration into the ELDR — on whose governing Council I sit — would then probably lead to Finanna Fail MEPs joining the ALDE group in the European Parliament after June’s European elections.
The move has been warmly welcomed by the current leader of the ALDE Group, Graham Watson (LibDem MEP for South East England), who commented, ‘I am certain that any application from Fianna Fail to join the Liberals and Democrats will be wel -received. Fianna Fail MEPs would have no difficulty integrating into our group.’
Under Graham Watson’s stewardship, the ALDE Group has already swelled to over 100 members — the largest ever Liberal presence in the European Parliament’s history.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 19th February, 2009
The imprisoned Egyptian Liberal politician Ayman Nour was unexpectedly released yesterday, in a move that has been welcomed in Brussels and Washington. The 44-year-old Mr Nour is the leader of the Ghad Party (with which I have had contact in Cairo, through my work with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and Liberal International). A lawyer by profession, he ran against the incumbent President Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections, coming a distant second. He was subsequently charged with fraud and sentenced to five years in jail, but he insists that the prosecution was politically motivated and designed to punish him for standing against President Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981.
The official reason for Ayman Nour’s release was ‘on health grounds’, though many commentators believe that the Mubarak administration wishes to ingratiate itself with the Obama administration in Washington, which is likely to take a tougher line than its predecessor’s on human rights abuses and democratic constraints in Egypt, which receives huge amounts of US aid annually. Mr Nour says he intends again to take over the helm of his party — which has been in a state of demoralised shock since his imprisonment — though he is technically barred from standing for public office because of his conviction, unless he receives a presidential pardon.
Commenting on Mr Nour’s release, Graham Watson, MEP, leader of the Liberal (ALDE) Group in the European Parliament, said, ‘I applaud Ayman Nour’s brave decision to return to political life. We all know that this courageous move comes at high risk to his own security and we stand with him, shoulder to shoulder.’ Those who think that this marks a return to democratic norms in Egypt should not celebrate too soon, however. As Amr El-Choukabi, of the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo told Reuters, ‘All indicators show that [Egypt] is poised for more restrictions until the government wins the next legisltive elections by an overwhelming majority and the candidate of the NDP [Mubarak's party] wins the presidential elections in 2011.’
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, ALDE, Amr El-Choukabi, Ayman Nour, European Parliament, Ghad Party, Graham Watson, Hosni Mubarak, Liberal International, Westminster Foundation for Democracy | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 9th January, 2009
Next week sees the first 2009 plenary session of the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, but ALDE (Liberal) Group leader Graham Watson is already hard at work, launching his bid to become the Parliament’s next President. It’s an audacious move, which will raise eyebrows in some quarters. But ever since I first met Graham when he was David Steel’s bag-carrier, I have been aware of both his ambition and his talent. We can expect him to fight hard, even if he enters the campaign as the underdog. The reason for that is that the two bigger parliamentary groups — Socialists and EPP (centre-right) — tend to sort out the position between themselves, and it is only rarely that a Liberal — such as the Irish independent MEP, Pat Cox — gets through.
That’s why Graham is standing, he says. ‘For too long, Presidents of Parliament have been chosen through backroom deals in smoke-filled rooms. Mine will be the first ever public campaign for the presidency: in this I hope that I will set a precedent. I hope that by going public with my campaign I will stimulate debate about the candidates and the issues, and spark a contest that will be decided on merit not convenience.’
Graham plans to reveal his campaign platform next week. Let the debate begin!
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 31st October, 2008
It would probably surprise most Liberal Democrat members and supporters in the UK to learn that the party is the largest Liberal party in Europe, in terms of the percentage vote received in national elections. Because of the first-past-the post electoral system in Britain, however, the party’s strength in the Westminster parliament is only half what it should be and it hasn’t been in government since the War. By comparison, most of the contintental Liberal Parties are quite small, but often have considerable influence. Indeed, six European Prime Ministers are Liberals (from Andorra, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Romania). Other Ministers are legion.
It is all the stranger, therefore, that while several present or former Prime Ministers and numerous Ministers from continental Liberal parties have been present at the ELDR Congress in Stockholm, as well as a couple of European Commissioners, during the past two days, the large British contingent is light on parliamentary eåpresentation. Simon Hughes, MP, the Party President, is here for the day today, and he should be congratulated for the seriousness with which he personally has taken the Liberal Democrats’ international links, including with Liberal International. But there is no other Westminster MP here, and only two out of the eleven British members of the European Parliament (Andrew Duff and Sharon Bowles, though Graham Watson, the Leader of the ALDE Liberal group in the European Parliament did send a video message). This is all the more shocking given that this Congress is fashioning the manifesto for the 2009 Euro-elections. The unfortunate message going out to sister patries here is that despite their Euro-credentials, the LibDems don’t take Europe seriously and consider relations with ‘foreigners’ of secondary importance.