Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Strasbourg’

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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Simon Hughes Speaks up for Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 21st November, 2012

Long before Simon Hughes became Mr Bermondsey (and more recently Mr Old Southwark too) he had European ambitions and indeed worked in Strasbourg for a while. But the looming opportunity of a byelection three decades ago diverted him onto a path that has led to his becoming Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats and the very model of a modern community politician. This evening, however, in the delightful surroundings of Sofra Covent Garden — courtesy of the restaurant group’s generous owner and Westminster LibDems member Huseyin Ozer — Simon was able to reflect on things European and international as the guest after-dinner speaker at the local party’s annual fundraising event. He stressed how important it is that the LibDems continue to champion the importance of Britain being at the heart of Europe and like St George face-to-face with the dragon he slayed some of the falsities put out by Tory Eurosceptics and the right-wing Press. He also stressed how vital it is that when the Leveson Inquiry reports the LibDems must take its recommendations to heart — something which again various people on the Tory right will attempt not to do. Sue Baring, now standing down as Chair of the local party after three years at the helm, rightly received plaudits and presents for her energy and commitment. And the best present of all for her will be in 2014 if, alongside a good performance in the European elections, the LibDems take Bayswater ward, which she and her colleagues have been building up for so long.

Link: http://westminsterlibdems.org.uk

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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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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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Reforming the ECHR

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 23rd February, 2012

The 47-nation Council of Europe is little known and much misunderstood, particularly in Britain, where the populist media is in a state of permanent warfare with anything ‘European’. As I hope most readers of this blog already know, the CofE is a completely separate body from the European Union and embraces all of the countries of wider Europe, from Iceland to Azerbaijan and Russia, with the single exception of wayward Belarus. It has its own parliamentary assembly, which meets in Strasbourg, but this is not directly elected by European citizens, unlike the European Parliament, and it has almost no power. But the CofE does much useful work, for example in protecting media freedom, the rights of minorities (notably the Roma in recent years) and promoting transparent democracy. Of course, the main reason the institution gets into the British newspapers at the moment is because of the associated European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This has come under a lot of fire recently in Britain, including from Prime Minister David Cameron, who in turn was strongly criticised by London’s LibDem MEP Baroness (Sarah) Ludford last night, at a seminar on Issues around Reform of the European Court of Human Rights, held at Europe House in Westminster. Mr Cameron likened the ECHR to a small claims court, highlighting how some of the thousands of cases that are sent to the ECHR for consideration each year are of an essentially trivial nature. Certainly, there are far too many of them, which has resulted in a horrendous backlog. Moreover, the British Conservatives in general tend to oppose the idea that the ECHR should have the right to ‘interfere’ in or ‘overturn’ the decisions of British Courts, for example relating to prisoners’ rights to vote and the non-deportation of Jordanian extremist Abu Qatada. But as the QC and leading human rights lawyer Lord Lester pointed out eloquently last night, much of the press coverage of the ECHR in Britain is simply wrong. However, both he and Sarah Ludford and the third speaker Daniel Holtgen, Director Communications at the CofE, acknowledged that the institution is in need of reform. Indeed, the parametres for this may well be set at an upcoming CofE gathering in Brighton. The CofE should probably try to do less but better. And when the EU signs up to the ECHR, as is planned, there will need to be some readjustments to avoid duplication. But it would be helpful in the meantime if British politicians and journalists who should know better stop slagging it off and misrepresenting it. Human rights and democracy are the cornerstones of the European world view, and the CofE is the right forum in which to work for their enhancement.

Link: http://coe.int

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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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Strasbourg’s Chilly Charms

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th January, 2009

european-parliament       It must be 30 years since I was last in Strasbourg, though if I get elected to the European Parliament in June, I’ll be coming here pretty often. The city has the ‘best of both worlds’, in terms of its glorious Germanic half-timbered architecture and its scrumptious French food; the delicatessens are to die for. I’ve always found the Cathedral rather sinister, but Strasbourg is an immensely civilised place in which to live and work. It has acquired some very sleek trams with panoramic windows since my last visit. 

Tomorrow, I will be attending the Executive of the Liberal International (postponed from Bangkok last month, when Thailand was at the height of its troubles) and an associated conference, at which Liberal members of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly will be well represented. Strasbourg is an ideal location for the Council of Europe, given the city’s fluctuating history between Germany and France. But for all its many charms (chilly at this time of the year), I think the French are wrong to insist that it should remain the main venue of the European Parliament. That situation, alas, is enshrined in the EU treaties, which means it cannot be altered without unanimous agreement by EU member states. That is something France is unlikely to agree to in the short term, despite the scandalous waste of money spent shuttling people and material between Brussels and Strasbourg and the latter’s relative inaccessibility. But that won’t stop me and countless others campaigning for a single seat for the European Parliament, in Brussels. People who agree should consider signing the online petition accessible through the link below.

Link: http://www.oneseat.eu/

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Roof Falls in on French Presidency

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 1st September, 2008

The first European Parliament session after the summer break should have opened in Strasbourg today, but instead, it had to be shifted to Brussels, as the ceiling in the Strasbourg hemisphere fell down on 7 August, sending tonnes of masonry crashing onto the seats and the floor. The French government is lucky that they only have red faces as a result. Had the Parliament been sitting when this accident occurred, there would almost have certainly been several deaths and numerous serious injuries. It is a huge embarassment for President Sarkozy, however, not only because the French currently hold the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, but also because the French have been insisting on their right to host 12 parliamentary sessions in Strasbourg each year, rather than shifting everything to Brussels, which is what most non-French MEPs (and taxpayers) would prefer.

Having today’s parliamentary session in Brussels means that it coincides with the special meeting of the European Council (the 27 Heads of Government) in the Belgian capital, to discuss what to do about Russia in the wake of recent events in Georgia. This is going to be a real test of M Sarkozy’s diplomatic abilities, as the 27 EU member states are far from united on how firm the Union should be. The Parliament wants the French President to go to brief them as well — and he can expect some hard questioning if he does.

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