Jonathan Fryer

Brexit and the Baltic States

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th September, 2016

Baltic States flags.jpgA few days before June’s EU Referendum invited to Riga to give a lecture on Brexit at the University of Latvia. The mood among the audience (and other speakers) was one of total mystification: why would Britain want to leave the EU after more than 40 years, when other countries are knocking on the door to get in? Three months later, the attitude of the Baltic States to the Brexit vote is one of sorrow and dismay, partly because they believe Britain’s departure (if it happens) will weaken the EU but also because they feel it will affect them. The possible return home of Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonia migrants currently working in the UK is one outcome, but as the Lithuanian Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, Asta Skaisgiryte, said at a Political and Economic Circle Forum at the National Liberal Club this evening, a major concern is about security, in particular the way that the EU will or will not continue to stand up to Russia. All the Baltic states are nervous about Vladimir Putin, following the Russian encroachment into Georgia and Ukraine, not to mention the dreadful decades of Soviet occupation, human rights abuses and deportations. But the Ambassador also highlighted a specific potential threat from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, arguing where would its growing naval and military might be focused if not westwards to Europe? Baroness Judith Jolly, a LibDem spokesperson on defence in the House of Lords. also concentrated on security matters in her comments from this evening’s panel. Although Britain will remain a member of NATO, pulling out of EU cooperation could weaken the North Atlantic Alliance. Moreover, Brexit could be a prelude to other political events that would have been unthinkable only months ago, such as a possible Donald Trump victory in the US presidential election in November or the triumph of the Front National’s Marine Le Pen in next year’s French elections. It was interesting that an unusually large turnout had registered for the seminar, which also heard from Tom Brake MP, LibDem Foreign Affairs spokesman in the Commons, Vytis Jurkonis from the Freedom Association office in Vilnius, and the Chairman, Lord Chidgey.

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The Mayor of Mogadishu

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th September, 2016

the-mayor-of-mogadishuFor two decades following the ousting of President Siad Barre, Somalia was written off by the West as a failed state. Yet somehow parts of the capital Mogadishu survived and braver members of the large Somali diaspora in Europe and North America returned, to set up businesses or attempt to reconstruct a shattered country, despite all the corruption and ongoing feuds between clans. Among them was Mohamud ‘Tarzan’ Nur (most Somalis acquire nicknames, his own reflecting his toughness and adventurous spirit since his childhood in a Mogadishu orphanage). Nur succeeded in becoming Mayor of the city, before being unceremoniously sacked by a president who maybe feared (not unjustly) that Nur was after his own job. Tarzan’s wife, Shamis, is a strong woman in her own right, from a more affluent background but like many who have spent years outside her native land ending up making ends meet, whether raising six children off Queen’s Crescent in Camden, or setting up a dress shop in Dubai. So although Andrew Harding’s book The Mayor of Mogadishu (Hurst, £20) is at face value a biography of an extraordinary individual, it is much more — bringing in other members of Nur’s family, friends and other individuals whose experiences make this such a graphic and disquieting portrait of a society trying to rise phoenix-like from the ruins, despite the lingering presence off-stage of the fanatical Al Shabab Islamist militants. Harding is one of the BBC’s most distinguished foreign correspondents, covering large swaths of Africa out of Johannesburg and he has been flying in and out of Somalia since 2000, often at considerable risk. But parallel to his day job as a reporter has been this quest for the truth about Mohamud Nur: a hero, or a man tainted by corruption or the brief trappings of power? That quest itself gives the story much of its potency, and at the end the reader is as unsure as the author is exactly what to make of Tarzan, despite a deep affection that has grown up between them over the years. For all its dangers and shortcomings Somalia has also obviously got under Andrew Harding’s skin. If you only ever read one book about Somalia, let it be this.

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UK Press Coverage of the EU Referendum

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 21st September, 2016

eu-referendum-uk-pressBritish newspapers are notoriously partisan, which is a polite way of saying politically biased. But do they actually influence the way people think and vote, or rather do readers gravitate to titles that reflect their own opinions? It has often been argued that the latter is the case, which might suggest that the bias does not really matter, yet when so much of the UK Press argued for Brexit, I couldn’t help wondering if that contributed significantly to the narrow vote to leave the EU. So I was pleased to be able to attend a seminar last night at Europe House, headquarters of the European Commission and European Parliament London representation, to listen to a panel discussing the findings of a report on UK Press coverage of the EU Referendum, published by the Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism in association with PRIME Research. The study, which looked at the Tuesday and Saturday editions of nine leading newspapers, found that 41% of the articles that focused on the referendum were pro-Leave whereas only 27% were pro-Remain. When the readership reach of the different newspapers was factored in, the imbalance was even more marked, as 48% were then identified as pro-Leave and only 22% pro-Remain. The study noted that Europe was not a particularly important issue for voters until 2010 and only became so after it was linked to immigration. The referendum campaign itself coincided with a decline in David Cameron’s popularity and the Remain campaign appeared unable or unwilling to articulate a positive vision for Britain’s EU membership instead focusing on the risks of Brexit. The Leave side then cleverly exploited what it dubbed Project Fear. The Remainers concentrated almost entirely on economic arguments whereas the Leavers gave more weight to matters such as sovereignty and migration. Neither side could claim to have told the unblemished truth, though the most egregious lie was the £350 million a week claim the Leave campaign could be saved by no longer paying in to the EU budget, instead spending the money on the embattled NHS. The Daily Express maintained a barrage of anti-EU migrant stories, though the reach and therefore impact of the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph was more significant. The pro-Remain newspapers were essentially the Daily Mirror, the Guardian and the Financial Times, though interestingly polling results later showed that a significant number of Daily Mirror readers voted to Leave, underlining the social/economic class dimension to the vote.

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Brexit: Groping in the Dark

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th September, 2016

img_1421it’s almost two months since the British electorate voted by a slim majority to leave the European Union, but even though the new Prime Minister Theresa May emphatically declared “Brexit means Brexit”, no-one seems any the wiser what Brexit will entail — least of all the three men who have been chosen to deliver it: David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson. Last night, at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton, a panel that included Jacqueline Minor from the European Commission’s London Representation, Timmy Dooley from Ireland’s Fianna Fáil and Manfred Eisenbach from Germany’s FDP grappled with the possible outcomes. EU leaders have made clear that Britain cannot expect to enjoy access to the European Single Market unless it accepts freedom of movement, and it’s difficult to see how that circle can be squared. Outside of the EU the U.K. may therefore have to apply to join the World Trade Organsiation and abide by WTO rules, but that would mean it having to negotiate bilateral trade deals with most of the rest of the world, as well as with the EU. First, though, it would have to disentangle itself from EU membership. It took Greenland (technically part of Denmark) three years to withdraw and they only had to deal with fishing. The UK’s withdrawal would be infinitely more complicated and is likely to take much longer. Only after that could new trade deals be finalised, which could take many years as well as adversely hitting the UK economy. Everyone on last night’s panel agreed that one has to respect the outcome of the EU Referendum; one couldn’t just run it again, in the hope of getting a different outcome. But it would be perfectly feasible to put the new trade deal — whenever it is reached — to the vote, at which point people might realise Britain would be better off staying in the EU. That is indeed the line being premoted by the LibDem leader Tim Farron, who got a standing ovation at a packed rally earlier in the evening.

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The Challenge for the Liberal Democrats

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 16th September, 2016

tim-farronAs Liberal Democrats gather in Brighton this weekend for Autumn Conference, it’s a timely moment to consider the challenges facing the party. Despite the turmoil within Britain’s official opposition party, Labour (graphically illustrated on BBC’s Question Time last night by a cat fight between John McDonnell MP and Alastair Campbell), the LibDems seem stuck in the national opinion polls in the range 6-8%. Pretty pathetic for a party that was in government (albeit in Coalition) between 2010 and 2015. Yet the position is nowhere near as bleak as that headline figure might imply. There has been a whole series of very strong LibDem gains in local council by-elections over the past few months; there was another one yesterday, in Derbyshire. These suggest that the party has bottomed out electorally and is now on the road to recovery (as Paddy Ashdown argues in today’s Guardian). Moreover, there is what I see as a golden opportunity in the parliamentary by-election due to be held in Witney on 20 October. Witney was of course David Cameron’s seat. Just a year after winning an unexpected overall majority in the last general election, David Cameron’s fall from grace has been spectacular. In the wake of June’s Brexit vote, he resigned as Prime Minister and then on the eve of a highly critical Foreign Affairs Committee report on his handling of the Libyan crisis, he resigned his seat. Interestingly, in West Oxfordshire (in which Witney is the seat of local government) Remain triumphed in the EU Referendum, which means that there must be many thousands of disgruntled voters there who in a by-election situation might be persuaded to vote for an explicitly pro-European party. That certainly won’t be Labour, given Jeremy Corbyn’s self-evident ambivalence about the EU. But it could be the Liberal Democrats, if the party seizes the opportunity, selects a brilliant by-election candidate with the right credentials and pours members and supporters into the constituency for an intense month-long campaign. Tim Farron is expected to make the clarion call for pro-Europeans at Brighton this week. Let that also be the trumpet sound for Witney, which, if handled well, could be a milestone in the LibDem Fight Back!

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Son of Saul

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 15th September, 2016

son_of_saul_posterThe stark reality of the gas chambers and furnaces of Auschwitz are hard for the human mind to imagine, even when one visits the eerily empty huts that have been preserved on site. And although concentration camps have figured in many Hollywood movies — Spielberg’s Schindler’s List perhaps being the best-known example — none conveyed the true atmosphere in the way László Nemes’s Son of Saul achieves. It is a grey and brown world cut off from normal life, the air filled with smoke and the barked orders of the German SS overlords and their Polish and Jewish kapo underlings, the noise of banging doors and the shrill cries of victims arriving on transports and being shepherded to their death. The film — the director’s first — focuses on one man, Saul (brilliantly played by the Hungarian writer and poet Géza Rohrig), who is one of a team that empty the Jews’ clothes of valuables, drag the lifeless bodies to the furnaces, shovel coal and throw human ashes into a river, beyond which the “real” world exists, if only they could escape. Conversation is in brief, snatched moments, as they fulfill their gruesome tasks like automatons, all at great speed, chivied on by blows and threats. The camera rarely leaves Saul’s face, the action around him often reduced to a blur. He is emotionless, as if his mind has retreated into the innermost part of his being, until he sees a boy who briefly survives the gas chamber before being killed and whose body Saul latches on to as if it were his own son, desperately trying to locate a rabbi among the transports to give the boy a proper burial.

son-of-saulSon of Saul deservedly won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year. I saw it at a screening at the EBRD in London last night, after which Géza Rohrig (unrecognisable behind a bushy black beard) was interviewed by Henry Fitzherbert, film critic of the Sunday Express. The actor was so affected by the experience of working on the film that he got circumcised and traveled to Israel to study Judaism. He made the telling point that other films about the Holocaust tended to focus on the one in three Jews who survived rather than the two who perished, whereas Son of Saul concentrates totally on the victims. They all die, and there is a grim inevitability about that which gives the film so much of its power, making it literally unforgettable.

 

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Grilling Frederick Forsyth

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 14th September, 2016

frederick-forsyth-1“I have no respect of admiration for the Establishment,” novelist and occasional MI6 collaborator Frederick Forsyth declared yesterday at a gathering of the London Grill Club, an informal lunch club for journalists and other professionals who give a prominent public figure a grilling once a month. Forsyth campaigned for Brexit long before this summer’s EU Referendum campaign, but he was as scathing about British politicians as he was about Brussels bureaucrats. David Cameron’s resignation from Parliament obviously figured large in the conversation, but the novelist felt the now departed Prime Minister only had himself to blame: he should have been neutral in the referendum debate, as Harold Wilson was in 1975, rather than being the “chief prosecutor” for Remain. Tony Blair also came in for criticism; although Freddie supported the Iraq War, he was appalled by what he saw as Blair’s lying to Parliament, and he backed Reg Keys, father of one of the Iraq casualties, when Mr Keys stood against Blair in Sedgfield at the 2005 general election. Forsyth at 78 is a more mellow personality than even five years ago, but he still has some robust opinions. “Political correctness has replaced Christianity as a religion in Britain,” he pronounced at one point. He does not intend to write any more books; his autobiography The Outsider “is my swan song”. But that does not mean that he will abandon campaigning when there is an issue he feels strongly about, his current hobby-horse being to expose what he sees as “a stitch-up” involving a Royal Marine convicted of shooting a wounded Taliban fighter in Helmand province in Afghanistan in 2011.

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Commemorating the Chinese Labour Corps

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 13th September, 2016

chinese-labour-corps-1As Britons this year have been remembering the fallen of the Battle of the Somme 100 years ago, scant mention has been made of the largest group of foreign labourers who helped dig the trenches, unload ships and trains and make roads: the Chinese Labour Corps. About 96,000 predominantly rural workers from China volunteered to help the British in the war effort, enduring a grueling journey by ship from Shanghai, then six days in a sealed train across Canada before another ocean voyage, eventually reaching England and being transferred to France. Once in the war zone they worked ten hours a day, seven days a week, with only a three day annual holiday entitlement, and they were looked down on as “coolies” by many of the fighting men. But their loyalty and bravery were exemplary and many who survived stayed on until 1920, to carry out the distressing task of digging up human remains and reburying them under the neat rows of headstones in war cemeteries. across Flanders. Those cemeteries have become places of pilgrimage and remembrance, especially in this centenary year, and in Britain there are 40,000 memorials of one kind or another to the fallen of the First World War. Yet there is no memorial as yet to the Chinese Labour Corps, even though an estimated 20,000 perished. That includes over 500 who died when a German submarine sank the French ship Athos, bringing labourers to the battlegrounds, after which China declared war on Germany in August 1917. However, a project, spearheaded by Steve Lau, Chairman of the Ensuring We Remember Campaign, is now underway to ensure that the members of the Chinese Labour Corps get just recognition with a memorial to be erected somewhere in London. Last night I attended a fundraising dinner in Chinatown, along with Merlene Toh Emerson of Chinese Liberal Democrats and a number of other politicians, including DCLG Minister Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth and London Assembly member Shaun Bailey. Further details and an opportunity to donate can be found at http://www.EnsuringWeRemember.org.uk

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Remembering 9/11

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 11th September, 2016

twin-towers-2001On 11 September 2001 I was at the Savile Club having lunch when the head waiter called me into the kitchen to look at the TV. I thought I was seeing a disaster movie but soon the penny dropped that this was live news footage from New York. The way the twin towers crumbled and some people threw themselves to their death to escape the flames was almost unbelievable. Indeed, for a while my brain could not register the fact that it was really happening. It was an almost inconceivable event outside of wartime, and soon President Bush and Tony Blair and others would declare that we were in a state of war — a War against Terror. The following morning I was due to fly to Beirut and when I heard of the security measures being rushed into place around the globe I wondered if Heathrow would even be open. In fact, it was, though hardly any passengers had turned up and there were policemen carrying guns patrolling the corridors. Only about half-a-dozen people had boarded my Middle East Airways flight to Lebanon, so we were outnumbered by cabin crew when we finally took off. At Beirut, some airport staff came onto the tarmac to welcome us, to thank us for coming despite the tension. The Lebanese were frightened they might be attacked in reprisal for the 9/11 assaults, but it turned out that most of the hijackers were Saudis, not Lebanese or Palestinians or any of the “usual suspects” in the American mindset. Of course, there was no way that the United States was going to attack Saudi Arabia, its bosom buddy, in reprisal. Instead, it would be Afghanistan and then later Iraq that took the brunt. Millions were killed or displaced over the next decade and a half. The consequences of 9/11 must surely have been unimaginable to those who perpetrated it. Looking back 15 years on I am struck by a parallel with the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that was the spark that lit the tinder that set in motion the First World War, the consequences being so enormous that they overshadowed the initial act. I think the same will be true when the verdict of history is passed on 9/11, but we are still close enough to the events of 2001 to wish to mourn those who were killed and to offer deep sympathy to their families and friends. Perhaps the greatest tribute we can pay to them is then to dedicate ourselves to try to contain and ultimately extinguish the firestorm of war and terror that took hold of the Middle East and beyond.

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The Liberal Democrat Plan for Britain in Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th September, 2016

tim-farron-1Guest post by Tim Farron, Leader of the Liberal Democrats:

Liberal Democrats believe that the British people should have their say on the final Brexit deal in a referendum. Voting for a departure is not the same as voting for a destination. British people have a right to have their say on whether the deal they are offered is the right one for them, their families, their communities and our country.

The Liberal Democrats remain a proudly pro-European party. Following the referendum, we are setting out clear answers to some of the big questions and what we think should happen next.

Key constitutional questions

Should we re-run the referendum to overturn the results of the first?

No. We believe that the Leave campaign lied blatantly, leading many people to believe things such as a vote to leave would mean £350 million a week for the NHS. However, we should not keep re-running the last referendum in order to get the result we wanted.

Should the British people have the final decision on the government’s negotiated deal?

Yes. In voting to leave, there was no opportunity to vote for how future trading relationships should be, or how we should work with other countries over things like criminal justice, law and order, ease of travel etc. Voting for a departure is not the same as voting for a destination. When the deal is negotiated, in however many years’ time, the British people must have a chance to say if they would prefer the new arrangement, outside the European Union, or would prefer to remain inside the European Union.

Should young people (16-18) have a vote in a future referendum?

Yes. Liberal Democrats would introduce legislation to lower the voting age to sixteen.

Should Parliament vote on Article 50?

Yes. Parliament is the supreme law-making body in the United Kingdom. There should be a formal vote in Parliament to give notice under Article 50 and trigger the process for withdrawal. Liberal Democrats will decide how they will vote after they see the terms on which the government proposes to negotiate.

Key issues for negotiation

Protection of rights for EU citizens and UK citizens

Those who have made the United Kingdom their home should be allowed to stay. We will seek to secure the same for UK citizens living in European Union countries.

Freedom of Movement and the Single Market

Any deal negotiated for the United Kingdom outside the European Union must include membership of the Single Market and protect freedom of movement.

Maintaining environmental standards

We have a duty to future generations to protect our environment and tackle climate change. We will ensure that everything is done to maintain those high standards in UK law.

Law enforcement and judicial co-operation

We must maintain maximum cooperation to ensure criminals are pursued quickly and effectively.

Protection of Erasmus, investment in our universities and research networks

We should do everything we can to protect Erasmus, as well as other EU funded schemes increasing opportunities for young people. We will campaign to sustain the levels of investment in UK universities and their associated research networks.

Travel and tourism

We must make every effort to ensure that we retain ‘soft’ traveller benefits such as the European Health Insurance Card, reduced roaming charges and pet passports.

British industries

The City of London must retain full rights in EU financial markets.  We must also protect the support provided by the European Union to domestic industries such as farming, tourism and the creative industries, as well as regional support for deprived areas.

Like our plan for Britain in Europe? Share it on social media!

 

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