Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Poland’

Pride in Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th June, 2014

gay prideThis week, for the first time ever, the LGBTi Pride Rainbow Flag is flying from the facade of Europe House in London’s Smith Square, headquarters of the European Parliament office and European Commission representation. Yesterday afternoon, there was a seminar there on extending LGBT rights in the EU, learning from the UK experience. For once it was good to celebrate an area in which Britain is actually a leader in the European Union. Things are not nearly so advanced in some formerly Communist states of Europe, but the point was interestingly made at the seminar that labour mobility within the EU had helped to alter attitudes in some central and eastern European states radically. Poland is a good case in point; until recently overwhelmingly conserative an often homophobic it has recently liberalised, partly thanks to migrant workers who came to Britain, for example, and for the first time engaged with LGBTi people and later returned home with a different opinion. Alas, in some eastern European states that are not part of the EU the situation is still dire. It was good (but a little depressing) to hear of work being done to help activists in Belarus who have been prevented from setting up a solidarity group. In Russia, the situation is actually regresing, as Putin has led a red-blooded heterosexual counter-offensive as what he decries as gay EU expansionism. Anyway, when Conchita Wurst will lead the London Pride celebrations in Trafalgar Square this Saturday, so those of us living in London will have much to be joyful about,  which should fortify us to help defend the rights of those living in jurisdictions that are not so inclusive.

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Gerald Howson: A Very Polish Affair

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th May, 2014

Gerald Howson PolandGerald HowsonIn 1959, at the height of the Cold War, the British photographer Gerald Howson was sent to Poland to take pictures for Queen magazine, in principle to illustrate an article that would be written by a friend of mine (long since deceased), the writer Frank Tuohy, who was then working for the British Council in Warsaw. What Gerald found was a country trying to recover from being marched over, occupied, divided up for centuries and latterly dominated by Soviet Russia. He took his cameras into the streets of Warsaw, Krakow and other towns and cities, photographing ordinary people and everyday scenes, deliberately not artfully constructed, almost surreptitiously, though many people realised he was snapping away and were quite unconcerned about it. Frank never wrote his article, as he worried that identifiable people might suffer because of it, and Gerald did not find it easy to place many of his pictures on his return home, as they did not fit into the then popular genres of fashion or glamour. The Polish authorities weren’t too happy, either, asking him where were the pictures of people dancing and being happy (as Gerald says openly now, “there weren’t any!”). Many years later, a former BBC World Service colleague of mine, Bogdan Frymorgen, who was searching for images for a museum of 20th century Polish history, from the layperson’s point of view, went to see Gerald and discovered the treasure trove of black and white images that he had stored in a chest of drawers. The net result is a fascinating exhibition, which has already been shown in Poland but is now in the 12 Star Gallery at Europe House in Smith Square, London (the HQ of the European Commission and European Parliament’s offices in London) until 13 June. There are some stunning images, several of them drawing their power from their very banality, but often with an unspoken deeper message behind, such as the almost deserted but rubble-strewn streets of the Jewish quarter in Krakow or two little boys with cows in a field, with the menacing fence of Auschwitz in the background. Gerald — now in his 90s, but scintillating in conversation, as well as in the historical writings that have occupied his later years — captivated the people present at the exhibition’s London vernissage this evening when he declared that people in Poland in 1959 were just so bored of the Soviets being there. The same cannot be said of him or his work; one can get a good flavour from the following video clip on YouTube: 

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Russia’s UN Veto over Crimea

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 15th March, 2014

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At the UN Security Council in New York Russia has vetoed a resolution denouncing tomorrow’s planned referendum in Crimea. China abstained. But the clear majority view within the international community is that the referendum is illegitimate and that moreover Russia’s increasingly belligerent stand-off with Ukraine is the most serious threat to European security since the end of the Cold War. The European Union and the US have rightly warned Moscow that economic sanctions and other punitive measures could be imposed against key Russian figures unless President Putin backs off, but he seems to be on a roll, basking in the support of Russian nationalists and a significant proportion of the population of Crimea itself. Crimea was ceded to Ukraine by Nikita Krushchev during the old Soviet days, but as there were no internal borders between the different republics of the Soviet Union that did not make much difference. These days Russia and Ukraine are two separate countries, however, and the demonstrators who occupied Kiev’s Independence Square from last November onwards made clear their preference for an EU-oriented future rather than one ties to Russia’s apron-strings. In advance of tomorrow’s vote, an attempted incursion by Russian helicopters was made into the Ukrainian district of Kherson, which is not part of Crimea and which represents a serious escalation. Frantic diplomatic efforts are still going on to try get the Russians to calm the situation, but the UNSC vote does feel like a return to the old days of East-West standoff. However, there two important differences worth noting. These days Moscow does not have a group of satellite states to support it; indeed, Poland and the Baltic States (the latter once part of the Soviet Union) have been strong in their criticism of Putin’s moves. And secondly, although there were, predictably, some demonstrations in Russia lauding Putin’s machismo, several tens of thousands went into the street of Moscow today to protest against what is happening.

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Migrant Workers and EP2014

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 10th September, 2013

A useful article (which first appeared on the European Movement’s euroblog) by Matthew Donaher of the trade union UNISON on why it’s important to vote in next year’s European Elections — and how migrant workers benefiting from the EU’s freedom of movement of labour could influence the outcome:

migrant workersIn 1999 I was part of the 76% of the UK electorate who didn’t cast a vote in the European Elections. It wasn’t deliberate, but neither was I that bothered when the next day a friend asked me who I had voted for.
Now however I would not dream of abstaining in the Euro-elections next year. I will be actively working to encourage members of my union – UNISON, and their friends, families, and communities to turn out and not just vote but to actively participate in the political process.
There are three key reasons for doing this. First, the European Parliament is important, as readers of this blog know. The ideas that are discussed in the Parliament are directly relevant to the lives of workers in Britain, whether it’s health and safety, working time, public service provisions, trade union rights, or equalities the decisions taken by the 766 MEPs impact on us every day.
Like me in 1999 many of our members do not realise the extent of the Parliament’s reach, or they do not believe that they have the ability to influence the decisions taken by voting for the people that will best represent their interests. Our job as a union is to help our members make their voices heard at every possible opportunity.
Polish buildersSecondly, my focus as a community organiser who works with UNISON’s Polish Worker’s Network; it is an opportunity for us to enable our members who are EU migrants (and particularly Eastern European) to organise themselves as part of Britain’s political life.
They may not be entitled on the whole to vote in the general election but they can vote in European and the simultaneous local elections. Part of our role as their union is to educate members about the political process and how to influence it. Primarily though we should be providing mechanisms for migrant workers who are at the forefront of delivering public services and utilities in this country to tell politicians what their self identified needs and interests are. Engaging in electoral politics is an essential part of that.
Furthermore the European elections are a brilliant opportunity for well organised communities and groups of workers to assert themselves. Due to low turn-outs the fact is that in some regions EU migrants could easily influence the allocation of seats; and if they organise together with their British colleagues around common goals through the unions and community organisations we can make a real difference. If we agree with the ONS that there are about 4 million EU citizens in the UK that is a substantial proportion of the electorate, especially given that turnout in the last Euro-elections was just over 15 million.
We would expect that, if our members see that their collective activity with the union has visibly altered the outcome of the election, then that is going to encourage continued participation in UNISON and in wider civic society.
Thirdly, and equally importantly, as a union that organises and represents thousands of migrant workers from around the world, not just Europe, it is important that we organise as many of our members as possible to use their votes for a positive, progressive, and social Europe that defends the social chapter and fights for more equality and better rights, rather than reactionaries who want to tear up equalities legislation, abolish working time regulations, and kick out a sizable percentage of the very people that look after your elderly aunt in the care home, and keep clean that hospital you had the operation in last year.
My colleague Narmada Thiranagama has written for the Institute of Employment Rights about many of the reasons why people should vote against the jokers in UKIP; our members need to mobilise effectively to make sure these reactionary charlatans don’t come first in the elections and our migrant members can play a key role in that.
How can our migrant members organise themselves and their families to have an impact on the election? If we give them a compelling narrative that engages and encourages the telling of positive stories of how working people have influenced the European wide fight for progress, people will feel it’s worth participating. This will mean creating vibrant channels for communication between members and between our members and the politicians who want their vote, using the tried and tested methods of community organising, hustings, face to face meetings in workplaces, and communities, 1 to 1 conversations between activists and members, and an active and lively social media presence.
2014 is just the start, in 2019 we could see the first UNISON sponsored Polish UK MEP.

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Ed Davey, the EU and Climate Change

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th June, 2013

Ed Daveyclimate changeThe European Union has been leading the way in the global fight against climate change, not least thanks to the efforts of Liberal Democrat Ministers in the UK’s Coalition government, Chris Huhne and now Ed Davey. The latter was guest speaker at Merton Liberal Democrats’ summer garden party in Wimbledon this afternoon and restated his determination that the Paris summit in 2015 must seal a meaningful new treaty, to build on achievements so far. There are some member states that are dragging their feet — notably Poland, which still relies heavily on coal for its energy needs. But the UK is part of a group of 10 EU member states — dubbed the Green Growth Group — which are on the side of the angels in the related debate. Moreover, Ed has been buoyed by the appointment of John Kerry as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State in his second term, as Kerry was ahead of Al Gore in recognising the problems of global warming. Even China is sending out some reassuring signals. The problems of air and water pollution in China are immense, as a result of the country’s rapid industrialisation and relatively lax environmental supervisory standards. But public opinion in China has become increasingly vociferous about the health consequences for children — all the more acute give China’s ongoing (though modified) one child policy. Accordingly, the Chinese Communist Party has started to take note of ecological protests, instead of just suppressing them, as it realises that its survival in government may be at stake. Back home in the UK, it is the Liberal Democrats who have been keeping the Coalition government on track on climate change issues, despite the scepticism of certain Tory right-wingers. In next year’s European elections (which in London will coincide with all-out borough council elections) the LibDems must champion this success. Furthermore, Ed argued, we should not hold back in attacking UKIP, which is not only the home of many climate change deniers but also tries through its lies and distortions to undermine European cooperation with all its beneficial aspects for our common future.

http://www.edwarddavey.co.uk and http://www.mertonlibdems.org.uk

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Celebrating Janusz Korczak

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 10th January, 2013

Janusz KorczakThe Polish Jewish doctor and writer Henryk Goldszmit, who published under the pen name Janusz Korczak, was for the Nazis a mere statistic, as he perished in Treblinka concentration camp in 1942. But his memory lives on, not just in his books, but for the way he championed the rights of the child, long before that became fashionable. It was only in 1989 that the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child — since ratified by every member state of th UN except Somalia, South Sudan and the United States — but Korczak had long before articulated what he identified as the mistaken way many adults treat children — indeed he promoted the idea that there are no children, only people. He studied medicine and worked for an Orphans’ Aid Society in Warsaw. Posthumously, he gained huge renown in his native Poland but also around the world, and 2012 was declared by the Polish government to be the Year of Januscz Korczak. This week, at Europe House, the London headquarters of both the European Commission representation and the European Parliament office, an exhibition celebrating his life and work opened — admirably muted but very effective — with the assistance of the Polish Cultural Institute. It doesn’t matter that 2012 is over as the legacy remains. Moreover, the true insignifance of dates is underlined by the fact that no-one is quite sure in which year Korczak was born, 1878 or 1879; his lawyer father took a long time to register the birth and the exact details are lost in the mists of time. Korczak’s writings — translated into humrous languages, notably his children’s stories, are his most important testament, but he left many maxims as well, which reflect his noble character. Notably he wrote, despite all that happened to him in the Warsaw Ghetto before transportation to Treblinka, “I bear no malice toward anyone. I am unable to do so. I do not know how.”

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Investing in Poland

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th October, 2012

The Polish Embassy in London threw its doors open to the Wednesday Club of the Institute of Directors (and a couple of journalists, including me) this evening, to promote investment opportunities in Poland. The country has much to be proud of, having been judged by the IMF to be one of the best places to put one’s money in Europe. This is remarkable when one thinks that only 30 years ago it was in effect a Communist dictatorship, albeit one with the Solidarnosc trade union activists in Gdansk demanding freedoms. Britain is actually the third most important investor in Poland, after the United States and Germany, with much of the FDI going into the automobile and heavy industry sectors, though IT and other concerns are growing fast. The fact that very few foreigners actually speak Polish is of little import, as increasingly Poles, having dumped Russian as a compulsory subject at school, now speak good English. Moreover, Poland make a great success of its presidency of the European Union last year, including putting on a brilliant cultural programme, and many of the Polish migrant labourers who came to Britain after EU accession have since returned home to take part in the country’s progress. Poland is not part of the eurozone as yet — perhaps a blessing just at the moment — but its economic growth rate is something the UK can only envy. So there is every reason to look forward to increased bilateral trade and investment.

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Scrutinising Belarus

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th February, 2012

Belarus is often portrayed as the Bad Boy of Europe — the only European state that is not a member of the Council of Europe, thanks to its retention (and use) of the death penalty, the apparently fraudulent nature of its elections and its poor record on human rights. Opposition figures are regularly imprisoned (often for short periods), harrassed and denounced in the official media, and the KGB — which still keeps its Soviet-era name — is a looming, ominous presence, with a large headquarters on the main drag in the capital, Minsk. When I went there a few years ago to meet political and human rights activists, I felt I had walked onto the set of a film of one of John Le Carré’s novels. Rendezvous were made with people at their request in parks or noisy restaurants; Even the head of the Communist party insisted on meeting clandestinely in a café. Yet it is an over-simplification to denounce Belarus blithely as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’, for all the self-evident shortcomings of Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. People can access the Internet in the numerous cyber-cafés, and young Belorussians with enough money to pay for a Schengen visa can travel West, notably to Lithuania and Poland. They don’t need a visa for Russia, to which Belarus remains tied with an umbilical cord, And even if Lukashenko has sometimes irritated Putin and other Kremlin figures, Belarus is a useful ally for Moscow. Some of the subtleties of the situation came out in a meeting that I chaired this evening at the National Liberal Club, on behalf of Liberal International British Group (LIBG) and Liberal Youth. This was the first such joint venture, which not only packed out the room but also produced some high-level debate, not only from the panel — Jo Swinson MP, Dr Yaraslau Kryvoi of Belarus Digest and Alex Nyce, former East European specialist at Chatham House — but also from the floor. Several members of the audience had had direct or indirect experience of working in or with Belarus and there was considerable discussion about what sort of stance the European Union should take on relations with the recalcitrant state. Intriguingly, a parallel was drawn between Belarus and Myanmar (Burma) and the question was posed as to whether constructive engagement might be a way forward in the hope of encouraging reform — though Lukashenko would have to release prominent dissidents before his good faith would be taken seriously.

http://libg.co.uk and www.belarusdigest.com

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Fair Trials International

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!

Link: www.fairtrials.net

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EU-Russia Relations

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 20th August, 2011

The European Union’s relations with Russia hit a low in the summer of 2008, when Russian troops intervened in Georgia. And the energy crisis triggered by the Ukrainian gas dispute of January 2009 didn’t help. But in the two-and-a-half years since then, there has been a degree of reconciliation, or at least the mutual acceptance of a kind of modus vivendi. As  the Centre for European Studies’ short book, EU-Russia Relations: Time for a Realistic Turnaround (CES, Brussels, 2011), points out, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wants to see more Western investment in Russia, while President Dmitry Medvedev concedes that Russia will need Western (including European) assistance if it is to modernise. One of the main conclusions of the book is that at the end of the day, Russia needs Europe more than Europe needs Russia. Three authors have provided short essays that form the core of the work: Katinka Barysch (the Deputy Director of the Centre for European Reform), my chum Christopher Coker (Professor of International Relations at the LSE) and Leszak Jesien (EU coordinator at the Polish Institute  of International Affairs). It is good to have a Pole involved, as the Polish-Russian dynamic has often been the most problematic within the overall EU-Russia relationship. A central, stark warning by the book’s authors is that the EU still tries to change not only what Russia does but also what it is. Europeans like to think that Russians should be just like us, whereas in fact they aren’t, and probably never will be. In short, Russia is not a Western society.

Christopher Coker takes a cultural approach to the subject. He draws a valuable distinction between what we profess (values) and what we practise (norms). He pulls no punches: ‘Russia is less a functioning nation state than a collection of vested interests… Russia is still trapped in the old ways of thinking.’ He nonetheless foresees a way of resolving the dilemma inherent in bilateral relations: ‘Only by granting [Russia] a distinctive identity will be able to acknowledge that its norms may not be ours, any more than ours are America’s.’ Leszek Jesien focuses on energy relations and trade. Russia enjoys a faourable balance of trade with the EU, but its exports are mainly gas and steel — commodities that are vulnerable to the whims of the market. Europe, on the other hand, is keen to secure its energy supply, even though the trade is currently mainly bilateral between Russia and EU member states, rather than being coordinated Europe-wide. Russia uses energy supplies as an instrument in its foreign policy. ‘For Russia, energy seems to be more like a chess game than a market game,’ Jesien writes. Europe needs to build up a single energy market, he argues. Finally, Katinka Barysch examines the institutional framework. The admission of central and eastern European states into the EU during he 2000s complicated maters considerably, even driving Russia to argue for compensation because of new barriers to trade with its former satellite partners. The current institutions for EU-Russia relations function badly, she argues. But we need to recognise that a chaotic, angry and unstable Russia is a risk to European security and prosperity, So the EU must continue to offer assistance and advice in helping Riussia strengthen the rule of law, build solid institutions, diversify its economy and develop a vibrant civil society.

Link: www.thinkingeurope.eu

 

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