Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for April, 2013

Hugh Dykes’s Vision for Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 30th April, 2013

Liberal Democrat peer Hugh Dykes sets out his (and mainstream LibDem) understanding of the vision that is needed for the whole of the European Union, not just filtered through the spectacles of apparent short-term national interest. This piece was originally published on the European Movement’s Euroblog:

What we need is a vision for the whole of the European Union.
by Lord Dykes

Hugh DykesA few weeks after the PM sadly refused to attend the Nobel Peace Prize award to the European Union in Oslo, I had the chance to ask my noble friend Baroness Warsi, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, what further opt-outs we would now seek in Brussels. She very kindly stated that “the Government always seek outcomes that are in the national interest … our priorities include … the single market and … fair competition”. I spend a lot of my time in France and have the opportunity to observe public life and politics there at close quarters. It is interesting that such a proud, indeed, sometimes overly patriotic country, sees absolutely no contradiction between its own direct interests and those of the European Union. It considers them intimately connected and pursues one as an expression of the other.  As in Berlin and Madrid, and most other EU capitals, the EU flag flies proudly in Paris alongside the national tricolour. They do not feel the one cancels out the other. The UK is the only major member state where government buildings never, ever fly the European flag. Why are we so nervous about the EU? Why are we so immature?

It is very self-defeating if leading Conservative Ministers and politicians refer to the over-repeated phrase “the British national interest” as if that were wholly different from our membership of the European Union and in opposition to that of all the other member states. The explanation for the use of such language is simple; an unusually large number of old-fashioned nationalist Conservative MPs have a notion of national sovereignty which is, literally, at least 100 years out of date. The fundamental premise upon which the European project is based is one which argues that pooling sovereignty by way of signing EU treaties, achieved by unanimity, is not a loss of real sovereignty, it is a means to protect it and enhance it. We have done so through other international treaties and membership of international organisations like the UN, WTO, NATO, even FIFA, all over the world, to no ill effect. It is quite extraordinary that the blind commitment in our so-called “special relationship”, which has led us to go into rather questionable military adventures in the not so distant past (which we usually later regret), is rarely questioned, while we suffer hot flushes when confronted with a perfectly sensible measure of consensus-based EU co-operation.

UK EUMr Cameron is now launching a risky plan which is designed to appease these wilder anti-EU MP colleagues, and which could quickly get out of control. His wish to renegotiate our terms of membership, in effect to get Britain out of its Treaty commitments, which have been voluntarily agreed and dully ratified by our own Parliament, can only cause resentment across the EU and raise questions among our international partners about how committed we are to our membership of the biggest economy in the world. It comes after Mr Cameron made himself unpopular through a series of tactical mistakes. The bitterness felt by the European People’s Party, the biggest, and incidentally, centre-right political family in the EU, about the Conservatives deciding to set up their own group in the European Parliament still lingers. Vetoing the Fiscal Compact and complicating efforts to address the sovereign debt crisis in certain parts of the Eurozone has not been forgotten either.

As Peter Ludlow said recently “The argument that the rest of Europe will simply acquiesce in whatever kind or arrangement (we) opt for, because … our partners need us … more than the UK needs them, is a total illusion”.
What is needed is a vision for the EU, one that is not based on the narrow national interest, but one that caters for the wider and common interests of the European Union and all its members. One that seeks to build on the successes of EU co-operation, but does not try to reduce it, discount it or compromise it. The best way to achieve that is through partnership and consensus, rather than ultimatums that risk a potential exit of the EU.

The European Movement UK is Britain’s longest standing pro-European organization, campaigning for decades to inform the debate around the benefits of EU membership.
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Diplomat Awards 2013

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th April, 2013

Ambassador BoomgardenHE Carlos dos SantosThe Langham Hotel, just opposite BBC Broadcasting House, claims with justification to be one of the oldest top-end hotels in Europe. Crown Prince Edward presided over the opening of its grand function room in 1865; this evening, almost a century and a half later, it welcomed the massed ranks of London’s diplomatic corps, at what has become a key date in the capital’s annual social calendar: Diplomat Magazine’s Awards for diplomats of special note, nominated by their peers. It’s true that in the interim the hotel went through some barren years, especially after the Germans dropped a bomb through the roof and the BBC then occupied it for offices. But now it is back to its former glory (despite recently hosting Justin Bieber, on the less than glorious London led of his concert tour). The Awards were presented tonight by Sir Christopher Meyer, former UK Ambassador to to Washington and head of the ill-fated Press Complaints Commission; he is now sucked into the corporate sector and performed with immense slickness and occasional wit. The laureates included the Christian Lady Ambassador of the Kingdom of Bahrain (Middle East), the German Ambassador (who sent a deliciously subversive pro-European Unity message in his absence), the Ambassador of Brazil (South America), the Ambassador of Indonesia (Asia)  and the High Commissioners of Mozambique (Africa) and Trinidad & Tobago (The Americas). The hotel and various sponsors certainly did us all proud and it is a credit to the Diplomat’s owners/editors Hugo and Venetia de Blocq van Kuffeler that they manage to keep the whole enterprise going in these difficult economic times. With over 160 diplomatic missions London as a posting remains one of the highlights of any diplomat’s career and indeed for some being accredited to the Court of St James’s is the crowning of a professional lifetime, even if on occasions (as Sir Christopher wickedly reminded us, in the words of Henry Wotton) they are being sent abroad as honest men (and women these days) to lie for their country.

[photos show HE Georg Boomgaarden, Ambassador of Germany, and HE Carlos dos Santos, High Commissioner of Mozambique]

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UKIP’s Waifs and Strays

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th April, 2013

Geoffrey BloomNigel FarageKen Clarke — the thinking man’s Conservative — has aptly described UKIP as a rallying point for waifs and strays. Though some of its members — and presumably its MEPs — are genuinely motivated by a belief that the European Union is the worst thing since the Third Reich a great many of its supporters are essentially people who look at a ballot paper marked Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and respond “None of the Above”. One reason for that is that none of the three major British political parties manifests xenophobia as overtly as does UKIP. It’s no use party leader Nigel Farage pleading that UKIP is not racist: the party’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, including the latest demonisation of Bulgarians and Romanians, is distinctly racist in tone. Some of the motley crew who have been signed up to stand for UKIP in this Thursday’s County Council elections have expressed openly homophobic opinions as well; one described gays as “termites”. Farage himself has admitted that the party has not had time to vet these newbie candidates thoroughly and that there might indeed be some members of the BNP and convicted criminals among them. It is significant that the hateful English Defence League (EDL) urged that other far-right parties, including the BNP, should not stand against UKIP candidates so as not to split the vote. As Geoffrey Bloom, one of UKIP’s more colourful MEPs, has warned, the party has not had time to draw up a clear manifesto of policy either. Mr Bloom, you may recall, is the gentleman who argued that women should spend more time cleaning behind the fridge. Feminism is almost as sinful as homosexuality in the lexicon of many “Kippers”. It is a fact that several of UKIP’s MEPs later walked out of the party after they got elected, and I won’t go into the criminal activity that landed certain people in jail. But Farage is a good comedy turn and is getting blanket coverage in the media so is an attractive nanny for the “waifs and strays”. For me the most alarming thing, however, is the way that the right-wing of the Conservative Party is cosying up to UKIP because it is afraid the party is taking away Tory votes. It’s a very dangerous strategy, but maybe not all that surprising when you consider that the Tories are in a group in the European Parliament that contains some pretty intolerant and offensive right-wing parties. UKIP’s intervention could lead to some very interesting results on Thursday, with the Conservatives likely to be the biggest casualties. The number of UKIP councillors elected might be small, thanks to Britain’s quirky electoral system, but the party’s bubble needs to be burst — and its shortcomings highlighted — before next year’s European elections, when a sizeable UKIP vote under a proportional system could make them the biggest contingent, doing incalculable damage to the UK’s reputation amongst our continental partners.

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Michael Moore’s Scottish Answers

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th April, 2013

Michael MooreNext year the voters of Scotland will have the opportunity to decide whether they wish to opt for independence. Opinion polls consistently show that unless there is a significant shift in mood between now and then the response will be a firm “no”. The SNP would have preferred at least two questions on the ballot paper, but the government in Westminster put paid to that and the Electoral Commission (which will quite rightly supervise the referendum) made the in-or-out question less slanted. This gives the Liberal Democrats a golden opportunity to shoot at an open goal by coming out as the party of “devo max” (significant further devolution of powers to Edinburgh) coupled with a “no” vote in the referendum. I made this point to the Secretary of State for Scotland, my old pal Michael Moore, at a pizza and politics evening in Islington this evening. I’m sure I won’t be the first or last person to do so. He meanwhile had given a very coherent and appealing presentation to the assembled groups of party activists and supporters, starting out by declaring that home rule was a very Gladstone sort of thing. Indeed, while the Conservatives have been very unsound on this matter (until the Scottish Tory leader had to do an inelegant u-turn after David Cameron’s more conciliatory speech) the LibDems have been consistent for generations. The party has of course suffered badly north of the border since 2010 because of the Coalition agreement with the hated Tories, but that was inevitable. The last Scottish parliamentary elections were dire for the LibDems and even managed to deliver a majority SNP government, even though the system was designed to avoid such one-party dominance. But now is the time for the Scottish Liberal Democrats to rebuild. I believe Alex Salmond has peaked too early. He has often shown himself to be a master politician — for example taking a risk by standing in the LibDem area of Gordon yet comfortably winning it — but as Michael pointed out this evening, Salmond’s case does not really add up. He wants to retain EU membership for a putative independent Scotland, yet doesn’t want to join the euro (or Schengen). And why would the rest of the UK necessarily give a free pass to a sterling area to Scotland? Besides, as part of the UK, Scotland has a voice at the top table of the UN and other fora, whereas an independent Scotland would be out of the loop — even worse than the situation of Norway, which is of comparable population size but has built up a huge sovereign wealth fund on the back of decades of oil and gas production. As Michael rightly said, it is rubbish to suggest that one can only express one’s nationhood by being an independent state. The Scots are more Scottish than they have been for generations and they are a welcome constituent part of the UK for a’that.

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Ján Mathé’s Sculptures

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 23rd April, 2013

Ján MathéJán Mathé's sculpture KosiceJán Mathé can justifiably lay claim to be Slovakia’s preeminent modern sculptor, though his work is hardly known abroad. Indeed, until tonight he had never been the subject of a solo exhibition outside the borders of the former Czechoslovakia. Alas, he died last June, just days before his 90th birthday, but his widow, Eva, was present at the opening of the exhibition of a wide selection of his works in the impressive ground floor space of the Slovak Embassy in Kensington. Mathé was born in the East Slovakia town of Kosice, which is one of this year’s European Cities of Culture, about which I will soon be writing more. But even if the sculptor was rooted physically in his home location his influences came from the mainstream of European modernism, including Bracusi, Giacometti and Henry Moore. He looked up to the last-mentioned of these as a Master, and was thrilled to be able to visit Moore in his studio on Mathé’s short visit to London in 1977. Some of the finest work in the current exhibition is redolent of Moore’s perceptions of human figures, particularly of women and of family groups. One of Mathé’s most imposing works, Resting Family, sited in a square in Kosice that has been named after him, has echoes of Moore’s figures, such as Draped Seated Woman, or ‘Old Flo’ as we call her in London’s East End. Yet it would be wrong to think of Mathé’s work as purely imitative. He has a distinct artistic voice, in fact, several voices, and his recurring themes of gestation, birth, meditation and companionship are expressed in a clearly personal vocabulary, particularly effective in the medium of bronze. His ability to produce such works during the oppressive period of Communism in Czechoslovakia, when adopting the modes of Soviet Realism was  de rigueur for anyone wanting to enjoy official patronage, is a testament to the artist’s fortitude. Nonetheless, it is interesting that during the Communist period, when soulless blocks of offices and flats were being constructed — and which still scar districts of Kosice and Bratislava  — the authorities nonetheless insisted that a percentage of the budget for their construction be devoted to Art of some kind. That is no longer the case, but enough of Mathé’s work is on view for his reputation to be secure in his homeland. He deserves to be more widely known. The exhibition at the Slovak Embassy in London — which is open to the public during office hours — will run until 24 May.

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Are the Greens Sinking?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 21st April, 2013

Natalie BennettIn the latest UK opinion poll, by YouGov for the Sunday Times, the Greens are put at just two per cent, confirming their slump in recent months. If they polled anything like that in next year’s Euro-elections they would lose both their MEPs — and all the associated funding. Their main asset remains Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion, but since she stood down as leader last year, in a worthy but perhaps foolish attempt to spread the exposure of Green politicians, few voters are able to say who’s the Green Leader (before you rush for your google search, it’s Natalie Bennett, pictured). It will be interesting to see how the Greens fare in the County Council elections in 10 days time, but I doubt whether it will be particularly good news for them. In 2010, when borough elections in London coincided with a general election, they fell back badly, especially in Lewisham, which was one of their strongest areas. So how can all this be explained? Partly it can be put down to the degree to which other parties have successfully sold themselves as being environment-friendly. That is particularly true of the Liberal Democrats, with the LibDem push within the Coalition for green energy, green jobs and a green investment bank; Ed Davey, as Secretary of State, ably took over the baton from Chris Huhne, who had done some excellent work in the field. And some protest voters who migrated to the Greens from the LibDems or Tories may, believe it or not, now have moved on to UKIP. But undoubtedly there is another, perhaps stronger, reason: namely that when the economic and financial situation is bad and many people are worried about their jobs and making ends meet, green issues tend to slip down the priorities of all but the most committed. At the Euro-elections in just over one year’s time the Greens will be praying that is not the case. And if they do lose their two seats it will be hard for them to promote themselves as a truly national party of significance in the run-up top the 2015 general election.

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Chopin Must Die

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 20th April, 2013

Chopin Must DieChopin Must Die 2London’s Polish community effectively took over the Mermaid theatre complex at Blackfriars this evening, for a one-off performance of the musical Chopin Must Die (in Polish, with English surtitles). It’s a reflection of how large the Polish community is in Britain, as well as of how vibrant London is as a multicultural Arts centre, that this event occurred not long after the world premiere in Warsaw. Directed by Marcin Wrona — better known in this country for his films — the show has as its central conceit the notion of what would happen if scientists were able to bring the composer Frédéric Chopin back to life — presenting the resurrected body of a genius whose name is commemorated and almost sanctified all over Poland. Frankly unable to cope with what he encounters in the modern world, in which TV companies, politicians and others are almost fighting over the chance to be with him, the composer is not surprisingly disorientated. We see cameos of his sister as well as of his lover George Sand (the latter strikingly played by Katarzyna Groniec, as a wild-haired zombie in a black Victorian gown, eerily reminiscent of Helena Bonham Carter). The music (apart from a fine blast of Chopin at the very end) has a modern score by Marcin Macuk, much of it accompanied by a disconcerting mixture of jerky and sensuous movements by the cast of singers and dancers. It was clear from the whoops and applause when some of these first came on stage that they were household names to at least part of the audience. The overall impression given was of a chaotic dystopia in which Chopin was not alone in feeling a fish out of water. Some of the parodies of TV shows and commercials were a little broad brush to my liking. But the company will return to Poland tomorrow knowing they have made an impression.


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Iraq 10 Years On

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 17th April, 2013

The Cordoba Foundation - Iraq 10 Years : Examining A Decade Of Turbulence Conference-The Commonwealth Club, London, United KingdomThe Cordoba Foundation - Iraq 10 Years : Examining A Decade Of Turbulence Conference-The Commonwealth Club, London, United KingdomThe tenth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq has provided an occasion for reflection on the pluses and minuses of that operation and its aftermath. Having been in Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) last month I know that many Kurds there think of the War as a Liberation, and I can understand why, given the dreadful persecution they suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen; it did indeed constitute genocide. But I am also aware, from my last visit to Baghdad, in December 2012, just how shattered Iraq remains as a state. Sunni have been pitted against Shia (who are now dominant) and fatal bombings in the capital are commonplace. As I said in a speech to the Cordoba Foundation and Al Sharq Forum’s Conference at London’s Commonwealth Club, “Iraq 10 Years On”, the Americans made a terrible mistake in pushing de-Ba’athification so far that they sacked the army and police force, as well as many officials — a mistake they notably did not make in Germany in 1945 after the defeat of the Nazis. Saddam was a monster, of that I have no doubt; his torture centres bore all the hallmarks of a true sadist. But the Bush-Blair invasion did not usher in a period of faultless democracy and peace. I never believed it would. Moreover, as Wadah Khanfar — former head of Al Jazeera — pointed out at the same conference, the Iraq War, together with the new Arab Awakening, and all the baggage of Western interference in the Middle East and the unresolved Palestinian situation, has left a region in turmoil. It is not just Iraq that is dysfunctional but the entire MENA region, and I suspect it will take decades before things settle down. Whether that will be within the same b0undaries as the current countries is by no means sure. After all, most of the countries in the Middle East are artificial constructs, the result of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Balfour declaration and the British betrayal of Arab nationalists led by the Hashemites. Moreover, given the Syrian civil war and renewed political activity regarding the Kurdish question in Turkey, it is not impossible that some time in the future there will be an independent Kurdish state. The KRG are currently sticking to their line that they will be happy with devo-max in Iraq, but if Iraq effectively ceases to be a coherent country then there will be a big temptation to go it alone, which could have far-reaching regional implications.

Photos by Richard Chambury (richfoto). 1: Daud Abdullah, Rosemary Hollis, JF, Matthew G Banks; 2: JF.

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Syria and R2P

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 13th April, 2013

Syria devastationBashar al-AssadToday at the Liberal International Executive in Beirut there was a special session on Syria, its title asking the provocative question whether the crisis and the international community’s failure to find a resolution to it signals an end to the Responsibility to Protect. Keynote speakers included former LI President John Alderdice, who I have often worked with, and former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, who I had dealings with when I was doing project evaluation and training for his Democrat Party in Bangkok a few years back. I not surprisingly agreed with almost everything John said though I argued that to call R2P a “doctrine”m as he did, was unfortunate as it is rather a principle of evolving International Law. Kasit, as a good Buddhist, argued that the lessons from Indonesia (Suharto) and Burma (the military junta) suggest that we should not seek revenge for what Bashar al-Assad and his family and cohorts have done, but rather show forgiveness. I countered that the Syrian regime’s crimes have been so heinous that for justice to be done he and his brother Maher should be brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague (which got a gratifyingly hearty round of applause from the Lebanese present, in particular). I maintained that Western military intervention in Libya had been correct, under R2P, even if the outcome is not entirely smooth, whereas I fear any Western military intervention in Syria would only make things worse. Instead, the Arab League — possibly with the addition of Turkey — should take the lead and try to convene a workable peace conference, though in the meantime considerable diplomatic pressure needs to be brought to bear on Russia and China, two of Syria’s strongest allies.

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Croatia, New Kid on the EU Block

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th April, 2013

Croatia flagcroatia mapOn 1 July, Croatia will become the 28th member state of the European Union, having cleared all the accession hurdles. It may come as a surprise to British Eurosceptics that there is still a queue of countries wanting to join the EU, but despite the ongoing economic and financial problems of the eurozone the EU project remains something to which newly democratic countries of eastern Europe, in particular, remain committed. This point was stressed by Croatia’s Ambassador to London, Ivan Grdesic, when he spoke at a lunch hosted by the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) British Section at Europe House in Smith Square today. Croatia will be one of the smaller EU states, with a population of under 5 million (even including Croats living in Bosnia Herzogovina, most of whom hold joint citizenship), but it recognizes that being part of the EU brings not only the benefits of being part of the Single Market but also should strengthen democratic transparency inside Croatia and the fight against corruption, which remains a factor in several Balkan nations. Of course there will be some downsides; when Croatia becomes a full member of the Schengen Agreement it will have to consolidate its borders with non-EU states, and it is going to have to introduce visas for tourists from countries such as Russia and Turkey. However, Croatia will be a significant beneficiary of EU funds, helping develop its infrastructure, industry and agriculture. There was some lively discussion with the Ambassador about the legacy of not only Communist Marshal Tito but also the distinctly right-wing and authoritarian President Franjo Tudjman, who was in power during the 1990s, not to mention the unfortunate earlier period of Croatia’s existence as an “independent” state during the Second World War when the fascist Ustasha ruled. It is a remarkable tribute to how far Croatia has come from those dark days on 70-odd years ago that now it is on the doorstep of EU membership. And who is next waiting in the wings? Probably Iceland!

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