Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for February, 2016

Shas Sheehan’s Plea for Refugees

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th February, 2016

Refugees are human beingsThis is the time of the year when Liberal Democrat local parties organise sessions to discuss the agenda for the Party’s forthcoming Spring conference, but Hackney LibDems decided instead at their Poppadoms and Politics last night to focus more directly on the burning issue of refugees, and in particular those who have been fleeing the last five years of carnage in Syria. Shas outlined the evolution of the Syrian conflict, which I have also been following on a day-by-day basis, and highlighted the fact that a quarter of Lebanon’s population is now made up of Syrian refugees, most of them housed in local peoples’ homes or out-buildings, or in makeshift accommodation. There are another million Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan and more than two million in Turkey, and tens of thousands continue to attempt a perilous crossing to Europe. The photos of the lifeless body of 3-year-old Syrian Kurd Alan Kurdi certainly brought home that reality to the British public, but David Cameron has only promised to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees, over a period of five years, and all from camps in the Middle East. As Shas said, the situation will only get worse, as Assad’s forces and the Russians further their advances into rebel-held districts of Aleppo. Moreover, this is a problem that is going to be with us for years not months, as happened with the refugee flows after the Second World War. That makes all the more necessary a coordinated and compassionate, long-term strategy on the part of the European Union.

refugees 1Inspired by her own trip to Dunkirk, Shas encouraged others to be part of relief efforts for people stuck there or in the Calais “Jungle”. But she was rightly insistent that only the right sort of aid should be delivered. M├ędecins sans Frontieres is working the the camps and absolutely does not want people self-miedicating on drugs brought over by well-meaning Brits. Similarly, most types of clothes and shoes are similarly not appropriate, nor tinned soup. What is needed, and could indeed be organised by local political parties or even at next month’s York LibDem conference, are items such as batteries, wind-up torches, sleeping bags, good quality tens and a limited range of foodstuffs and beverages, including tinned tuna, chickpeas, tomatoes, lentils, beans and fruit (preferably in ring-pull tins), cooking oil, spices, tea, sugar and salt.

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Liberal Democrats INtogether

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 10th February, 2016

Tim Farron at INtogetherThough the Liberal Democrats had a well-attended in-house launch for the LibDem European Referendum campaign at the party conference in Bournemouth last September, this afternoon a more public-facing event starring party leader Tim Farron, London mayoral candidate Caroline Pidgeon and Catherine Bearder MEP took place in central London at Bounce — a venue whose name the party can only hope has some kinetic effect. Against a backdrop of keen young people brandishing IN diamonds of various hues, Tim declared that the Liberal Democrats have always believed in EU reform, not the status quo. But that does not mean “IN, but”, he clarified. The party will be enthusiastically campaigning for reform with Britain firmly engaged in the EU, unlike half-hearted Labour and the divided Conservatives. Caroline Pidgeon stressed that whereas most of the issues likely to be raised on the doorstep between now and May 5 are likely to be more local issues, such as housing and transport, she is a convinced European who understands the value of London as Europe’s premier city. Catherine Bearder at one moment draped herself in a chiffon Union Flag scarf to make the point that a true patriot realises that it is in Britain’s best interests to be at the heart of Europe. The party’s INtogether campaign will now roll out across the country — and, one hopes, across social media. You can follow it, and indeed join in, via @LDINtogether.

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Terrorism and the EU

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th February, 2016

imageMuch of Europe is on alert following the Paris outrages late last year and London in particular is braced for one sort of attack by radicalised Muslim youths or returnees from service with ISIS/Deash in Syria. Having lived through years of IRA bombings the British public is probably more phlegmatic about terrorism than most, but it was nonetheless reassuring this afternoon to hear at first hand about the anti-terrorism work of Europol from that agency’s Director, Rob Wainwright. He was guest speaker at a Global Strategy Forum event at the National Liberal Club, speaking on the record, so not revealing any deep secrets, but nonetheless presenting a brilliantly cogent exposition of how Europol operates against terrorism through a three-pronged approach relating to radicalisation, migration and cyber crime. The sharing of information between different European police forces as appropriate has helped avert a number of planned attacks and Rob Wainwright says that Europol manages to track a very high percentage of potential terrorists and their international links, not least through monitoring financial transactions and social media. Because of the heightened security threat, the agency is doubling its personnel from 50 to 100 approximately, which is still tiny compared with the challenge, though most of its work is in collaboration with national forces. Currently the EU has no specific competence in this field, but the European Parliament should keep an eye on areas where more formal cooperation would be desirable. When an audience member at today’s forum asked Rob Wainwright if Britain would benefit from the same degree of such cooperation if it left the EU, he replied that he could see no security benefits from Brexit.

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Reporting Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th February, 2016

Boulton and EnglishOne of the most depressing things about Britain for native Europhiles such as myself is the way most of the mainstream media — especially newspapers — fuels antagonism to the European Union. But will that affect the outcome of the forthcoming IN/OUT Referendum? I suspect it will, though not necessarily to the extent of giving victory to the “LEAVE” camp. But it was useful to get a range of different perspectives today from academia as well as from Press and broadcasting colleagues at an excellent seminar at the British Academy: “Reporting Europe: The UK Media and the EU”. Sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council’s The UK in a Changing Europe Initiative, the day-long event brought in such figures as Mark Mardell of the BBC (keynote speaker), Adam Boulton from SKY, Anton La Guardia from the Economist and former Labour government Minister Charles Clarke with plenty of lively discussion with attendees. I hope the University of East Anglia/ESRC will publish the proceedings as one can hardly do justice to such a wealth of contributions. One valid point made was that when the first UK journalists (including me, for Reuters) covered the European institutions from 1973 onwards, they were almost all enthusiastic; John Palmer of the Guardian springs instantly to mind. But when Boris Johnson had his inventive (in every sense of the word) stint as Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph the pendulum swung the other way. The British press corps in Brussels has shrunk and is now mainly made up of people happy to provide knocking copy based on often dodgy “facts”. Of course, people tend to read newspapers that concord with their already held political opinions, so the Europhobia of the Daily Express or the Daily Mail may not actually convert anyone to the LEAVE side of the Referendum debate, though it is likely to reinforce their opinions and make them more likely to go out and vote. But the plain truth is that despite 43 years of EC/EU membership,most Britons are largely ignorant of what the EU is and what it does. No government in Westminster has had the courage to tell them. So people do rely on the media, particularly television, which is maybe less pernicious than some of the newspapers. This makes it all the more important that people who are in the REMAIN camp speak up and in particular get the message across through social media.

[In the photo: SKY’s Adam Boulton and Mark English from the European Commission’s London Representation]

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National Libraries Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 6th February, 2016

Puebla LibraryToday is the day for officially celebrating libraries, but in truth we should celebrate them every day of the year. When I was a child, growing up in a house where few books were read, let alone discussed, the public library in Eccles was both a refuge and a literary wonderland. For many years, after moving to London, I belonged to the London Library until they put up their subscription massively and I could no longer afford it; at least the British Library is free — and it has everything! When I am travelling I love to visit historic libraries, the last being the Biblioteca Palafoxiana in Puebla in Mexico. The Spanish and Portuguese did many terrible things during their colonisation of Central and South America, but libraries — some attached to monasteries, others to civil institutions such as universities — are a valuable legacy. Not surprisingly, some of the finest are in the Iberian peninsula itself; Coimbra University’s comes immediately to mind. But libraries don’t need to be ancient or architecturally striking — historic or modern — to be important. Libraries — or “idea stores” as my home borough, Tower Hamlets, calls them — should be living organisms at the heart of their communities, offering not just books and DVDs and so on but ideally events that draw people in and get them engaged. Sadly, in too many local authorities in the UK libraries have borne the brunt of spending cuts, though in some cases volunteer-run alternatives have popped up to try to fill the lacuna. But we should be doing more, not less, to promote library use as an integral part of lifelong learning as well as community cohesion. I was greatly inspired by the “lighthouse” libraries I saw in Curitiba in southern Brazil, where each neighbourhood had its own little library (including computer terminals for free usage) and the buildings themselves had a light at the top of a tower, just like a lighthouse, shining brilliantly round the immediate area, making it a safe place for people to go after dark, but also symbolising the fact that libraries illuminate lives, singly and collectively.

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Standing up for Syria

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 4th February, 2016

Syria war damageOn the first day of the Syria conference currently taking place in London billions of dollars have been pledged to help Syrian refugees, including $1.7bn from Britain. That’s the good news and the UK Conservative government, which rarely gets praise from me, deserves it in this case. However, the bad news is that the Syria peace talks that were being held in Geneva earlier this week were suspended yesterday while fighting on the ground in Syria has intensified. It is of course essential that the millions of refugees who have fled their homeland, notably to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, be given help, but such assistance can only be a form of band-aid relief rather than a solution so long as the civil war goes on. Moreover, yet more refugees will be created in the meantime; Turkey estimates that another 70,000 are fleeing the current Syrian government and Russian assault on rebel-held areas in and around Aleppo. The only solution as such can come from an internationally-agreed and implemented peace settlement and associated ceasefire. I opposed British airstrikes in Syria because there was no comprehensive peace agreement on the table and I do not believe that simply bombing necessarily helps. Of course, I despise ISIS/Daesh, but the situation in Syria is much more complex than just an attempt to curb self-styled Islamic State. Similarly, I dislike the Assad regime in Damascus, which has been responsible for egregious human rights abuses, both in its notorious prisons and in its use of cluster bombs and other weaponry against its own civilian population. Only through a proper peace settlement, at Geneva or wherever, can a way forward be mapped, which would include an end to hostilities and a transitional political arrangement leading to free and fair elections with sufficient international supervision.

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The Need for Grassroots IN

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 3rd February, 2016

Haringey in EuropeI was pleased to see that a local campaign for an IN vote in the forthcoming EU Referendum has got off the ground in the London borough of Haringey and hope that other local authority areas across the country will follow suit. Though people who really care one way or the other about Britain’s remaining in the EU or leaving, there is about a third of the electorate that is not really engaged — and the only way they are likely to become so is if they are contacted in their local communities and preferably told the facts about how EU membership benefits their area. In my home patch of Tower Hamlets, for example, there are numerous examples of projects from EU structural funds that have helped create jobs and boost the local economy. The OUT campaign is already quite well organised at a local level, especially in those areas where UKIP is active, and hopes to attract a lot of Tory voters and others to its cause.

Peter Bone, MP, wore an OUT campaign tie in Parliament today for Prime Minister Cameron’s statement on his attempts at EU renegotiation. I was pleased to see that it was a particularly hideous design, but it made me thing that the IN side needs to start wearing our colours too. There have long been some attractive and discreet lapel badges that figure both the British and EU flags, and which in my experience often generate questions or comment. But we also need to be organising street stalls and writing more letters to local newspapers. Some areas are already doing that, but most are not. We may not have all that much time to make a difference unless we get our finger out soon. Though Mr Cameron is still remaining coy about the date of the EU Referendum, he seemed to be hinting today that if he gets a deal he thinks he can sell to the British public, then the date will be the bookies favourite: 23 June, despite pleas from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to hold further away from May’s elections.

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