I only met Herman Van Rompuy once, finding him courteous and professorial, which is maybe not surprising given his low-key personality and taste for composing haiku, but I always felt it unfair the way the British Press ridiculed the former Belgian Prime Minister once he became President of the European Council; even Jeremy Paxman on BBC2’s Newsnight couldn’t resist the red-tops sobriquet for him, “Rumpy Pumpy”. Anyway, his now nominated successor, Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk, is an entirely different creature and should give added weight to the EU Council role. Even David Cameron approves of Mr Tusk (though I shan’t hold that against him). Moreover, it is a good move to have a Pole in this position, as Poland is something of a modern EU success story, as well as being firm on the EU and NATO’s need to stand up to Vladimir Putin’s outrageous Russian expansionism. The other big change to emerge from Brussels today is the replacement for Cathy Ashton, the (British) High Representative for Foreign Affairs (in effect, a putative EU Foreign Minister). Baroness Ashton also came in for some stick in the British media, not least because she was an unelected politician, having previously been Labour’s Leader in the House of Lords, as well as not having much of a foreign policy background. In fact, she performed better than I was expecting — for example, succeeding in visiting the ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in prison — but again I believe her successor will shine more brightly. This is Federica Mogherini, currently Italy’s Foreign Minister. It’s true she has only been in the job for six months, but at least she has political legitimacy. And it must help in her preparation for her new post that Italy currently holds the six-monthly rotating presidency of the Union. So these two new appointments are, I believe, largely to be welcomed, and may, possibly, stem some of the criticism targeted daily at the EU by the British media, which was far from happy at the accession of Jean-Claude Juncker to the presidency of the European Commission, where he might indeed find it difficult to make as much of an impression as the outgoing José Manuel Barroso. .
Archive for August, 2014
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th August, 2014
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th August, 2014
Having debated against the eloquent Euro-sceptic Conservative MP for Clacton, Douglas Carswell, during May’s European election campaign, I am not particularly surprised by his defection to UKIP. In a sense it is odd he didn’t do it before — indeed, during that campaign — but maybe UKIP’s strong showing in May persuaded him that it is now a risk worth taking. Honorably he is causing a by-election, though precedent suggests that might be a double-edged strategy. When Bruce Douglas-Mann, Labour MP for Mitcham & Morden, switched to the newly-formed SDP and caused a by-election in 1982, the seat was seized by the Conservatives. However, Mr Carswell may feel that his personal vote will bring over many Conservative supporters. His 12,000 majority over Labour in 2010 was pretty healthy and Clacton is the sort of Essex coastal constituency where UKIP is currently popular. Interestingly, UKIP didn’t field a candidate in 2010 (though a BNP candidate almost saved his deposit). The Conservatives are bound to throw everything they’ve got at this by-election; if they were really brave, they’d field Boris Johnson. But if they fail to hold the seat and Douglas Carswell becomes UKIP’s first elected MP it doesn’t mean he’ll hang on in May next year. Anyway, he has certainly put a bit of vim into the pre-Party Conference season’s politics. And may the best man (or woman) win!
(NB: Bob Spink MP defected from the Conservatives to UKIP in 2008, but was later reclassified as an Independent, as there was no UKIP whip in the Commons. He lost his seat in the 2010 general election, standing as an Independent with UKIP support)
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th August, 2014
During the first few weeks of 2011 I was glued to Al Jazeera’s English-language TV channel as the revolution in Egypt unfurled and President Hosni Mubarak eventually stood down from power. But this proved to be a hollow victory for the predominantly liberal and often secular young demonstrators who had been so visible in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Elections led to Mohammed Morsi of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood becoming the new president, but the new government’s swift moves to islamise the state led to renewed mass protests and Morsi’s ousting in a coup. Now Egypt is led by Field Marshal Abdel Fatah El Sisi, who many critics see as a sort of Mubarak Mark II. In fact, the repression against dissent is even worse now than it was in Mubarak’s final years. But all this was predictable, of so argues the British-Egyptian doctor Wafik Moustafa, in his thought-provoking book Egypt: The Elusive Arab Spring (Gilgmesh, £24.95). Dr Moustafa is unique in having stood for both the Egyptian presidency (against Mubarak) and as a prospective UK MP (for Bootle) — both lost causes, as Mubarak made sure for 30 years that the veneer of democracy eventually applied to quieten criticism from Washington would not threaten him through the ballot box, and Dr Moustafa is a Conservative who had little chance of ousting Labour in Britain’s industrial north west. His book is a very personal take on events, both during the three years of the so-called Arab Spring and in his recounting of Egypt’s modern history, from a liberal, cosmopolitan perspective. He obviously thinks Egypt is the poorer for losing former IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei from frontline politics (not a view particularly widely shared among ordinary Egyptians) and he is (probably justifiably) harsh on the record of the late Colonel Nasser, whose standing in the Egyptian street nonetheless seems to be rising again, with a little help from El Sisi. The author ranges wider than the Egypt of the title, looking at events across the whole Arab world, as well as specific issues such as the media. The order of chapters is at times a little strange — an account of the Egyptian monarchy coming towards the end of the book, for example — but the late alterations and additions made necessary by political developments in 2013 are reasonably well integrated into the whole, and all in all this is a stimulating read, which will be particularly appreciated by those who are not already Middle East experts and want an accessible and literate overview of Egypt’s situation and the multitude of challenges facing the country’s future.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Abdel Fatah El Sisi, al-Jazeera, Arab Spring, Egypt, Gilgamesh, Mohamed ElBaradei, Mohammed Morsi, Muslim Brotherhood, Tahrir Square, Wafik Moustafa | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th August, 2014
I have only seen the second series of the TV crime drama The Bridge, but it made me an instant convert to Nordic Noir. The dynamic between the two mismatched detectives, one Danish, one Swedish, is quite special, as is the observation of their dysfunctional private lives. For those who haven’t seen the programme, its plots span the narrow divide separating Copenhagen from Malmo, and the Oresunds Bridge that provides both a rail and road link between the two cities also provides the title of the series, as well as being one of its most striking stars. The bridge didn’t exist the last time I was in Copenhagen for more than just a stopover, so of course I had to make a pilgrimage over it — by tran, in my case, which was remarkably simple, as even on a Sunday there seemed to be trains every ten minutes or so, and the journey takes just over half an hour. I found Malmo this morning packing up from the Malmo Festival, which ended on Friday, but that meant that there were no great crowds. In fact, the city was virtually empty and I easily found a table in the sun at the Gustav Adolf restaurant for lunch. The bridge has really boosted Malmo, which used to belong to Denmark, but then became something of a backwater when absorbed into Sweden. There are some lovely buildings and squares, and a beautiful cemetery garden right in the centre of town. Well worth a day trip from Copenhagen (and, no, I didn’t see any criminal activity of any sort, least of all a kidnapping or murder).
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd August, 2014
When a community of hippies and eco-warriors settled in Copenhagen’s garden suburb of Christiania over 40 years ago they were hailed as Europe’s equivalent to San Fracsisco’s peaceniks. But whereas many American drop-outs returned to the conventional fold after a couple of years or so, becoming stockbrokers on Wall Street and the like, the alternative lifestylers of Christiania largely stayed, and the community thrives, despite the attempts over the years of some of Denmark’s more conservative governments to close the place down — or at least curb the open sale and consumption of marijuana (technically illegal) — as well as the potentially more dangerous threat from developers keen to get their hands on what is potentially hugely valuable real estate, not far from the city centre. On the advice of an Arab dancer friend who lives in Copenhagen, I spent the morning in Christiania and was charmed. It’s true that some of the larger old industrial buildings on the site are pretty run down, and not all the murals and graffiti sprayed around is good Art by any means. But to my surprise, I found some charming outdoor cafés, the hashish tents were festooned with white lace and flowers (and, no, I didn’t buy any), and if one wanders just a bit deeper into Christiana you come across lanes bordered with gardens and lovely old wooden houses, painted dark green (presumably previously the summer cottages of Copenhagen’s bourgeoisie?) and the atmosphere is so tranquil that one can forget modern life exists. There are no cars inside Christiana, of course, only bicycles of various types and the inhabitants go about their business discreetly ignoring visitors from outside, as they would like to be discreetly ignored. There are signs in the main thoroughfares warning NO PHOTOS! and this is indeed a place not be snapped but to be savoured. Long may it last.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 20th August, 2014
I have not watched the video of American journalist James Foley being beheaded by a militant from the so-called Islamic State, IS (previously known as ISIS). I don’t need to, in order to share the revulsion and anger felt by most people in Britain, especially as the masked “executioner” in the video would appear to be British, from his accent. Foley was a war correspondent, not a soldier, who had been held in captivity for the past two years before his gruesome death. His only “crime”, in the eyes of his captors, was his nationality, but nothing can possibly excuse his death and the manner of it. It comes hard on the heels of horrific stories of mass executions by IS of Yazidis and other civilians in Iraq and the terrorising of populations. I am not a Muslim, but I have studied enough about the religion over the years to know that this barbarity is as remote from the true teaching of Islam as was the Spanish Inquisition from that of Christianity. There is nothing noble or heroic in the action of IS militants, nor the cause they espouse. The Islamic State is pure evil, and must be condemned as such, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. That means not only action on the ground in Syria and Iraq — which is already seeing some unusual alliances forming against IS — but especially in the mosques and madrasas, and through social media, where the poisonous message of IS must be challenged and exposed for what it truly is.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th August, 2014
Brazil has long been one of my favourite countries in the world, but nowhere is perfect. The one thing about life here that I find really difficult is the absence of silence. Every cafe, restaurant and bar has either the television or radio blaring, and often both. And there is music everywhere — all very atmospheric during Carnival, but exhausting in its pervasiveness. I used to have a spot by the beach here in Fortaleza where I went to read, think and write, but since I last visited they have installed a radio and loudspeaker system there as well. Moreover, because of the climate — all year round, here on the Equator — people live out in the open and call out to each other. It’s rare to see anybody reading a book or even a newspaper, and that’s not only because they are so expensive compared with people’s earnings. However, all is not lost. There is a place where I go every morning while here, at the end of the wooden pier appropriately called the Ponte dos Ingleses, where I can sit in the breeze with nothing but the sound of the sea. Silence is golden, as the hackneyed saying goes. For in silence one can have deep thoughts. And also surrender to the form of inaction the Chinese Taoists favoured: a sort of not-thinking.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 17th August, 2014
In Brazil, where I’ve been for the past fortnight, much of the discussion in the run-up to state and presidential elections has been about corruption, which is so prevalent here, as in much of Latin America and elsewhere in the world, that it undermines the public’s confidence in democracy. The poor majority already feel marginalised from society, and the pervasiveness of corruption — whether on a massive scale by senior politicians lining their own pockets or the every day minor graft that poisons everyday transactions — is sapping the popular will. When I first started coming to Brazil, over 30 years ago, making radio programmes for the BBC, the country was a military dictatorship, with an appalling human rights record. People hoped that the peaceful transition to democracy would usher in a new age of safety and justice, but that promise has only partly been fulfilled. The rich and powerful elite still enjoy “rights” from which the poor are excluded, despite the left wing presidencies of Lula and Dilma, and until corruption is purged from the system millions of people will feel their voice does not matter and probably will not vote.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 12th August, 2014
The tectonic plates of the Middle East are shifting. This is maybe not surprising, given the artificial boundaries imposed on the region by the British and French following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. In fact, it’s quite surprising that carve-up envisaged by the Sykes-Picot Agreement has lasted as long as it has. The Islamic State, as ISIS has rebranded itself, sees its putative caliphate rubbing out borders like chalk lines on a blackboard. Iraq as a whole is falling apart, to an extent as a result of George W Bush and Tony Blair’s immoral war, but also because of the sectarianism and incompetence of the outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. The one bright spot on the horizon is the Kurdistan Regional Government, which has brought remarkable prosperity and stability to North-East Iraq, as well as providing a safe haven for refugees from other parts of the region. But in recent days, Kurdistan (KRG) has been under threat from ISIS and has called for weapons from the West, to help defend itself. Kurdistan deserves to be protected, and indeed to move swiftly to full independence, if that is what it wants. It had long been assumed that Turkey would oppose an independent Kurdistan, because of its own restless Kurdish minority, but that is no longer the case. So we may well see an independent Kurdistan take its seat at the United Nations in the not too distant future. And other changes to the map of the Middle East will surely follow.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 11th August, 2014
For years I have resisted calls to boycott Israel — not least in the field of academic exchanges — on the grounds that constructive engagement had a better chance of delivering an equitable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as fitting in better with my Quaker beliefs against violence and confrontation. However, the time has come to accept that engagement has not worked. The Israeli government has continued to allow the expansion of illegal settlements on land stolen from the Palestinians. Some Fascist Israeli occupies, who prefer to describe themselves by the euphemism “settlers”, continue to torment their Palestinian neighbours, uproot their olive trees and are complicit in the establishment of what can only be described as an apartheid state. And then there is the latest pitiless onslaught on Gaza, in which nearly 2000 Palestinians have been killed, including several hundred children. I deplore and condemn the rockets fired into Israel by Hamas and other militant groups. But what the IDF has been doing over the past month is not just disproportionate as a response, it is criminal. I look forward to the day when Bibi Netanyahu and his colleagues are arraigned before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Israel has repeatedly violated both the Geneva and Hague Conventions in international law, but now it deserves to face charges of war crimes. Moreover, remember Israel is a democracy, not a dictatorship, which is why the Israeli public who voted for Netanyahu, Lieberman and worse need to face the music too. Boycott Israel now, on all fronts, as happened successfully with racist apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Do not go on holiday to Israel, sunning on the beaches of Tel Aviv or Eilat, while ignoring the injustices being carried out against Palestinians out of your sight. Do not buy Israeli produce of any kind, not just from the illegal settlements. Make the message loud and clear: you can no longer act with impunity, Israel, and until you make a just settlement with the Palestinians, withdraw from the West Bank and lift the siege on Gaza, you shall be an international outcast, a pariah state, and deservedly so.