Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Yerevan’

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 There are nine candidates for eight places (a tenth, Elaine Bagshawe, has withdrawn).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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Singalong Sound of Music at Snape

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 30th August, 2012

Serendipity adds spice to life and resulted in my finding myself at the Maltings at Snape in Suffolk last night, singing along with the Sound of Music. The outing was the result of a chance conversation with my old friends (Baroness) Ros Scott and her husband Mark Valladares when were standing in Republic Square in Yerevan, Armenia, earlier this year, watching a sound-and-lights display  by the fountains. In the middle of a medley of familiar tunes both classic and modern came a snatch from The Sound of Music, which prompted both Ros and I to declare that one thing we’d always wanted to do was to go to a singalong version. The one I’d heard of in the past was at a cinema off Leicester Square in London. But when Ros returned home, she discovered that the Maltings at Snape — usually a venue for serious music — was putting on a singalong concert version. Spooky. It was too good an opportunity to miss (especially as it gave me the chance of seeing Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears’ home town of Aldeburgh first). So after an excellent meal at an adjacent gastropub we joined several hundred other people, dozens of whom were dressed as nuns, quite a number as brown paper packages tied with string and one group cleverly outfited as a herd of goats. It sounds kitsch, I know, but it was fun. Moreover, the quality of the music was really rather good, with an excellent trio providing the backing and the Aldeburgh Singers the Abbey choir. The rest of us went through a rehearsal during the first half of the programme, then in the second half we sang the thing right through. Brill! And deliciously, Britishly bonkers.

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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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