European Union Heads of Government met in emergency summit in Brussels today to discuss what to do about Ukraine. Although there was not complete agreement about how forcefully to react to provocative moves by President Putin and pro-Russian forces inside Crimea, everyone understood the need to prevent a further escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. Interestingly, Romania offered to act as an honest-broker between the EU and Moscow, which is a promising development; certainly, diplomacy will remain Europe’s tack for the time being, though European Council President Herman van Rompuy warned that various economic sanctions will be imposed if Russia does not change its tune soon. As it is, preparatory talks for the panned G8 Summit in Sochi have been abandoned, and the mood in both Washington and London is in favour of cold-shouldering Russia from the G8, which could possibly revert to being the G7. Meanwhile, ominously, the state-oriented Russian TV channel Russia Today showed viewers a map of Russia into which Crimea had already been incorporated. And the Crimean regional government’s parliament voted to hold a referendum to secede from Ukraine, to be held on 16 March — i.e. in 10 days time. That not only violates Ukraine’s constitution but would also make any proper debate about the pros and cons of the status quo, independence, devo max or incorporation into Russia impossible. So the situation remains extremely tense. However, the EU is right to try to pursue the diplomatic route — while offering financial and moral assistance to the provisional government in Kiev — rather than inflaming the situation further.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 6th March, 2014
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 4th March, 2014
I often say in speeches that to my mind the European Union has three major achievements to its credit: (1) ensuring that France and Germany — and by extension the rest of Western Europe — would never go to war again, (2) the re-incorporation of formerly Communist states of central and eastern Europe into the European family after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and (3) the European Single Market. A crucial element of the last-mentioned is freedom of movement for citizens of the EU throughout the now 28-member Union. The mobility of labour in particular has been a great boon to millions of individuals but also to economies, not least Britain’s — and in particular that of London. So it is particularly galling for me to hear the tone of the debate about EU migration in so much of the country, egged on by the more inflammatory elements of the popular Press, UKIP and far too many Conservative MPs, who really ought to know better. As was made abundantly clear at a seminar on Labour Mobility within the EU, hosted this morning by the Polish Ambassador, Witold Sobków, a major part of London’s boom has been the city’s ability to draw in EU migrant labour of all kinds — migrants, incidentally, who recent studies show pay in about 30% more in taxes to the British Exchequer than they take out in services and benefits. The timing of the seminar was pegged to the looming 10th anniversary of the Big Bang enlargement of May 2004, when eight former Communist states (plus Cyprus and Malta) joined the EU. Britain, Ireland and Sweden gave immediate working rights to citizens of the new entrants, unlike the rest of the EU. And although many Brits were taken aback by the large numbers of Poles, in particular, who arrived, skilled and keen to work, speakers at today’s seminar pointed out that Britain benefited. economically from that influx. Various perspectives on the subject were provided by Prof. Christian Dustmann (UCL), Jonathan Portes (National Institute of Economic and Social Research), Tim Finch (Institute for Public Policy Research) and the moderator, Sunder Katwala (British Future), of whom only Tim Finch really tried to be devil’s advocate in putting forward some of the reasons why some people in Britain might be uneasy about having EU migrants in their midst (though there is an almost equally large number of British migrants on the Continent). Migration Watch, which acts as a doomsayer on the subject had unfortunately refused an invitation to send a speaker for the panel. But it was clear that the mood of the audience was very much on the side of the angels (from my point of view), seeing labour migration as essentially positive for Britain. The negative narrative of so much of the media needs to be challenged head-on, and Liberal Democrats, in particular, as the “Party of IN” should not shy away from defending EU migration in the face of the antis myths and scaremongering.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Chirstian Dustmann, EU migration, European Single Market, Jonathan Portes, Labour mobiity, Liberal Democrats, Migration Watch, Sunder Katawala, Tim Fitch, UKIP, Witold Sobków | 2 Comments »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 2nd March, 2014
About 15 years ago, the German-born writer Corinne Hofmann enjoyed a huge success with an account of her headlong romance, marriage and then break-up with a dashing Samburu warrior in Kenya, The White Masai, which sold over four million copies worldwide. It captured the imagination of many whose own lives are rather humdrum, as well as providing an enjoyable read for European tourists heading for East Africa. It was followed by three other volumes of African memoirs, the last of which, Africa, My Passion, has now appeared in an English edition (translated from the German by Peter Millar), published by Arcadia Books (£12.99). In a sense the book is another love-song, only this time towards a continent rather than to a particular man and his environment. Not all the action is in Kenya this time, as the first part of the story relates a trek through some of the beautiful desert of Namibia (formerly German South West Africa). A middle section sees the narrator visiting various small-scale but successful development projects, ranging from vegetable growing in bags in the huge Nairobi slum, Kibera, to a football team for reformed gang-members. But most readers will enjoy most the third section of the book, which recounts Hofmann’s return to the Samburu lands, to introduce her 20-year-old daughter — who she has raised in Switzerland — to her father. There is no attempt at any full reconciliation (besides, her ex-husband now has a third wife and other children), but the meetings go well with him and her mother-in-law, who was a key figure in her Kenyan experience. And down on the coast south of Mombasa, she manages to track down her old friend, the Masai market-seller Priscilla [picture left]. But as Hofmann says in a postscript, for her a lot of the attraction of Africa is its otherness, its complete contrast to clean, solid, ordered Switzerland, “the intangible, the immovable, the unpredictable, the chaos, the animals, the sheer wildness that is Africa’s alone.”
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Africa My Passion, Arcadia Books, Corinne Hofmann, Kenya, Kibera, Masai, Mombasa, Nairobi, Namibia, Peter Millar, Samburu, Switzerland, The White Masai | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 27th February, 2014
Like many longstanding friends of Turkey I have been dismayed by some of the developments in recent months, several of which seem retrogressive rather than progressive. The way the Gezi Park protests were handled by the police and security forces — water cannon to the fore — was cack-handed and the fact that most of the mainstream media in Turkey –not least the TV — ignored them at first was a worrying indication of the way that self-censorship in the country is now rife. Moreover, scores of journalists have found themselves sacked, imprisoned or with the threat of prosecution hanging over them, which has resulted in Turkey now figuring way down the list of states in the world when it comes to freedom of the Press. So it was timely that this evening the Zaman newspaper group organised a meeting on Press Freedom in Turkey in the House of Commons, which I chaired. The parliamentary sponsor was Simon Hughes MP, recently appointed as Justice Minister in the UK’s Coalition Government and therefore in a position to make important representations on an international level, though as I pointed out one of the most disconcerting things about the current situation is the way that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has raised the spectre of foreign plots and conspiracies, which is a narrative that resonates with his supporters when they reject criticisms from abroad. The main speakers at tonight’s meeting were the Turkish journalist and blogger Yavuz Baydar — who was sacked from his position Ombudsman on the newspaper Sabah for political reasons — and William Horsley, formerly Europe Correspondent of the BBC, currently Chairman of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) UK Section and a key player in freedom of press issues at the Council of Europe and elsewhere. All of us were distinctly downbeat in our analysis of the current situation, which is made more complex by the fact that Mr Erdogan is under heavy scrutiny because of allegations of corruption based largely on recordings which he declares are fakes. There is a common argument that maybe he has suffered from the Ten Year Test (a la Thatcher and Blair), but as I pointed out there will be a real power vacuum in Ankara if he falls or the AKP does really badly in upcoming elections, as no opposition party seems ready and able to seize the moment. I still love Turkey, but I worry increasingly for its short-term future, as the Prime Minister and his administration become more authoritarian and ever more removed from common European values.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th February, 2014
Millions of Britons are used to waking up to or coming round to the crisp Scottish tones of presenter James Naughtie on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, but this evening Jim showed another side of his talents when he launched his first novel, a thriller called The Madness of July (Head of Zeus, £12.99), which I shall be reviewing shortly, at a packed gathering in Carlton House Terrace, at the back of the ICA. Half of Fleet Street’s finest were there (these veteran hacks have survived that Press thoroughfare’s demise), as well as a goodly sprinkling of BBC types and members of both Houses of Parliament and the Garrick Club. After paying tribute to his wife — an author in her own right — Jim revealed that his publisher has in fact commissioned three novels from him, such is their confidence that they are on to a winner. He assured the throng that none of them was a character in the book, though there might be elements of them that some might recognise. I can imagine Lord Archer scurrying quickly home to see if he is one of those. The world Jim writes about in the book is a mixture of diplomacy, politics and trans-Atlantic skullduggery — all in a day’s work, one might think, for someone in his pole position in the agenda-setting Today studios. Of course, those of us who know Jim as a friend are well aware of the broad range of his cultural interests, not least regarding opera, but I suspect this new twist as Naughtie as novelist will take some by surprise — but a delightful surprise. In the meantime, Jim was well-launched at the party and won’t be in any hurry to get up at three o’clock tomorrow morning — his usual rising time on programme days — I imagine.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 19th February, 2014
Last week the Federation of Small Businesses launched its European Elections manifesto in Brussels and this evening I will be taking part in a panel discussion organised by the FSB at University College London (UCL). Here’s what the FSB Europe Team has to say, in brief:
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th February, 2014
There’s a wonderful line in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, in which Blanche Dubois declares: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” At one level this is an indictment of the disfuntionality of some families, but it is also an important affirmation of the fact that we can be affected positively by the behaviour or words of people we don’t know personally, in a very supportive way. I was prompted into this meditation this morning by a series of ministries at Quaker Meeting in Hampstead (to which I belong), started off by a lady aged 96 who said simply that she was grateful for the way people were kind to her. Of course, when the Religious Society of Friends (aka Quakers) was in its infancy in the 17th century, Friends needed to support each other in the face of often terrible persecution and destitution. In the 21st century — in which people are often too busy to be kind, or else engrossed in their iphones — that is no longer the case, but I wonder whether part of the Quakers’ Peace Testimony these days shouldn’t be an awareness of how the way we move, speak and act can affect those around us, and that indeed even in small ways we may be of assistance to those who do depend on the kindness of strangers.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois, Hampstead Friends Meeting, Quakers, Religious Society of Friends, Tennessee Williams, The Kindness of Strangers | 1 Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 15th February, 2014
The Geneva2 Syria peace talks have broken up without any agreement. Lakhdar Brahimi, the veteran Algerian mediator, nobly apologised to the different parties for his failure to broker a deal, but he really isn’t to blame. There are people entrenched in their political positions on both sides who would rather the slaughter continues than concede that they cannot win an outright victory. According to the Syrian Observatory, 140,00 Syrians have died since the popular uprising began in March 2011, half of them civilians. Millions of others have lost their home or been forced to seek sanctuary outside the country. This is putting a huge strain on neighbours such as Lebanon and Jordan, while meanwhile Syria’s infrastructure and heritage and being destroyed. As I said in an interview on an Iraqi TV channel the other day, there are no angels in this conflict. But something has to be done to bring it to a close. The outside backers of Bashir al-Assad’s regime (Russia, Iran, Hezbollah) as well as the Gulf States arming the rebels (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) need to come up with some workable, comprehensive plan. No-one should doubt the evilness of the Assad clique, who have been killing and torturing for 40 years whenever they felt their hold on power was under threat. But several of the rebel groups are deeply unpleasant as well. I don’t have a magic solution, though choking off all arms supplies to both sides would be a step in the right direction. And as the Syrian parties themselves have failed to agree to a deal, it is now up to the outside world to concoct one. We cannot just sit idly by and say, “Well, Syria is completely hopeless.” Hope is what Syrians need, and quickly.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 14th February, 2014
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 14th February, 2014
UKIP and other European populist parties have been crowing about the recent referendum in Switzerland, by which the Swiss very narrowly voted to introduce immigration quotas, which will put the country in conflict with several aspects of its relationship with the EU, notably regarding the principle of free movement. Although Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it is part of the Schengen area and accepted many EU laws and regulations in order to be able to benefit from the European Single Market through a whole series of bilateral agreements. All of the main Swiss political parties except for the nationalist Swiss People’s Party opposed the call for immigration quotas, as did the business community, as they understand the complex implications of the decision. The result is bad for Switzerland and bad for the EU and highlights the dangers of referenda on populist issues such as immigration controls. Lukas Schuerch, Secretary General of the New European Movement Switzerland, has written a very helpful account of what the vote means:
On Sunday the 9th of February Swiss voters narrowly accepted a right-wing initiative to curb immigration. It demands to reintroduce quotas to control immigration to Switzerland. All the international treaties that contradict the new article the Swiss constitution must now be renegotiated within three years. If no solution is found that will allow Switzerland to amend its international treaty commitments in a way that Switzerland can reintroduce contingents on migration, then the Swiss government is obliged to break those treaties. The exact rate of the quotas will have to be fixed by the parliament.
The initiative was approved by just 50.3% of the votes and was passed by a majority of cantons. We can see a clear gap between cities and the countryside. In metropolitan areas where a lot of immigrants live and work, the initiative was defeated. But in rural areas, where we find a significantly smaller number of foreigners, the acceptance of the initiative was much higher. There was also a gap between the often more open minded French speaking part and the rest of Switzerland.
The adaption of the initiative puts the bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the European Union in danger. Quotas are not compatible with the «Free Movement of Persons Agreement» which Switzerland adopted in 1999. The agreement is linked to six other bilateral agreements, which concern directly the access to the EU’s single market. Should any of those fall – and since last Sunday we are no longer sure they will not – all the others become invalid within six months. The EU clearly stated that there is no possibility to reintroduce quotas along with the «Free Movement of People Agreement».
There are immediate effects that challenge the general relationship and Switzerland-based international (or at least exporting) companies have with the European Union:
First, a legal uncertainty occurs. Nobody knows how the relations with the European Union will evolve and when companies will be able to engage in long term business planning. Even if all persons without a Swiss passport who currently live and work in Switzerland are not directly affected until their visas will expire, Switzerland will face problems attracting talent from all over Europe and the world. It is also not clear how Switzerland will be able to participate in the single market. The image of the country as an open community with a successful economy will suffer for a long time.
Second, the adoption of this initiative creates a new bureaucratic burden for companies: While the principle of free movement of people stipulates that everybody within the European Union is entitled to work in any EU country without discrimination (including Switzerland as a non-EU Member State), the referendum initiative demands a prioritization for domestic persons. These two principles cannot be combined and will lead to difficult negotiations with the EU without any prospect of solution. In the not so distant future Swiss companies will be obliged to prove that there is no Swiss employee with similar qualifications for the job before hiring a non-Swiss worker.
Third, Switzerland’s «bilateral way» with the EU is brought into question. All the market access agreements of the «Bilateral-one-package» method employed between Switzerland and the EU (dating from 1999 and have come into force in 2002) are at stake. Furthermore, it is completely unclear how to proceed with the dossiers that are still in negotiation (such as energy, financial market, agriculture, food and participation on EU programs on research, education, culture). The EU has already suspended the negotiations of a framework agreement to resolve the “institutional questions” between Switzerland and the EU (implementation of EU legislation, interpretation, supervision, dispute settlement) and those of the electricity agreement.
Fourth, Switzerland is sending a dangerous signal to Europe and eurosceptic politicians and is thereby harming the system of free movement of people in the EU as a whole.
We all know that the implementation of the principle of free movement of persons is not perfect. But nevertheless we all profit from a fruitful exchange within Europe. We should therefore altogether work hard to improve the framework of the free movement of persons instead of just closing the borders.