Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Brexit’

The Future of UK-China Trade

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd October, 2017

JF addressing Chinese LibDems AGMLiam Fox and other Brexiteers in the UK’s current Conservative government are fond of saying that when we are “free” from the European Union, we will be able to enter into a great new dawn of trading partnerships with other big players around the world, not least China. Actually, it was David Cameron and the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who really championed the idea of a bright future hand-in-hand with the People’s Republic, though they never imagined that would be something totally separate from EU-China trading relations. Theresa May, interestingly, has been a little more cautious in her embrace of President Xi Jinping, who has been expertly consolidating his authority at the Chinese People’s Congress this week. But despite the bluff reassurances of Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson, forging an advantageous new trading relationship with China is unlikely to be straightforward, for a number of reasons. First, until Britain formally leaves the EU — in principle on 29 March 2019 — it cannot make any bilateral arrangement with Beijing. Moreover, there are not sufficiently qualified negotiators in Whitehall to handle such a sensitive matter (as the EU has dealt with our trade negotiations for the past four decades) and little Britain, with 60 million inhabitants, is going to be at a distinct disadvantage in taking tough with the colossus of China, unlike the 500-million strong EU, which is still the largest trading bloc in the world. Bilateral trade is already skewed in China’s favour, and is likely to be more so in future, not less. Other factors make prospects mixed. China under Mr Xi is becoming more assertive in global affairs, having largely sat on the sidelines for many years, even within the UN Security Council. Many people in China believe the time has now come for China to reassert its pre-eminence in the world, as was the case prior to 1500 and the rise of European Empires. The four hundred years of European dominance, followed by a century of American hegemony, may in future be seen as a blip in comparison to China’s long supremacy. Then there is the issue of Donald Trump, who is repositioning the United States to be more isolationist (and certainly more self-centred), racheting up conflicts with countries such as Iran and North Korea in a way that risks souring US-China relations. Yet Theresa May aspires to be Mr Trump’s greatest ally, despite disagreeing with him over the Iran nuclear deal. This could prove awkward. In the meantime, the British government has downgraded human rights as a priority in its foreign policy, which is sweet music to Xi Jinping’s ears — though Britain must be careful to ensure that as a future relationship evolves it does not end up dancing to Beijing’s tune.

This is a summary of remarks I made as the guest speaker today in London’s Chinatown at the AGM of Chinese Liberal Democrats:  https://chineselibdems.org.uk/

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Why Brexit Should Be Stopped

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 1st October, 2017

BrexitMany thousands of people are expected to demonstrate today in Manchester on the StopBrexit! March. I am sad not to be able to be with them, as I am preparing for the new academic year at SOAS that begins tomorrow. However, I am braced for a storm of abuse from Brexiteers, who will doubtless claim that I and other pro-Europeans don’t respect democracy, as last year’s European Referendum delivered an approximately 52:48 vote in favour of leaving the European Union. On the contrary, I do respect democracy, which is why I support wholeheartedly the Liberal Democrat position that when the Conservative government has agreed the terms of an exit deal with our current 27 EU partners this should be put before the British electorate asking them whether this is really what they want. By then the consequences of Brexit will be much clearer than they are now, let alone in the theoretical situation of June 2016.

Keep Calm and Stop BrexitAs it is, the signs are not encouraging. The pound has slumped in value and foreign investment in the UK is falling. Having been one of the fastest-growing economies in the G7 a year ago Britain is now one of the slowest. EU workers have already started leaving the country because of the uncertainty about their future status, causing staffing problems in different sectors of the economy, not least the NHS, farming and the hospitality industry. That situation is bound to get more acute. Banks and companies have started moving some of their operations out of London to Dublin, Paris and Frankfurt, thus diminishing the prime position of the City, which contributes so much to the UK economy.

The situation regarding the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — currently effectively invisible — is intractable, as any restoration of border controls would risk reigniting civil strife. The imposition of customs regulations for goods from the EU at Dover and other UK ports would clog the ports up within days. Currently, the Government is arguing that there needs to be a transition period of perhaps two years after Britain in principle leaves the EU at the end of March 2019, but that will only delay the inevitable cliff-edge. And in the meantime, Britain’s international image and influence are being rapidly diminished. We are a far stronger player on the global stage as a member of the EU than we can ever be outside. Finally, let us remember what the then UKIP Leader, Nigel Farage, said just before the Referendum, namely that a 52:48 result would be “unfinished business”. He was anticipating a 52:48 vote to Remain, of course. But on this one occasion, at least, he was right. The outcome of the Referendum is unfinished business and it is only right and proper that the British electorate should be given the opportunity to decide, probably in 2019, whether they are really happy to see their country sliding downhill as a result of leaving the world’s biggest trading bloc.

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Mrs May’s Florentine Tragedy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd September, 2017

Theresa May Florence speechYesterday, in Florence, the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, set out — partially — how and why Britain intends to leave the European Union. She said she chose that location because Florence had played  a central role in the Renaissance, “a period of history that inspired centuries of creativity and critical thought across our continent and which in many ways defined what it meant to be European. A period of history whose example shaped the modern world. A period of history that teaches us that when we come together in a spirit of ambition and innovation, we have it within ourselves to do great things.” Britain’s current 27 EU partners, not to mention many millions of Brits, may be left wondering why, if coming together to do things is so important, the UK government is now taking Britain away.

BrexitThe answer, according to the Prime Minister and other Brexiteers, is that this is “the will of the people”. On 23 June, 2016, in a Referendum marred by lies and hyperbole (the latter on both sides of the debate), UK voters chose by a margin of a little under 52 to 48 to “Leave” rather than “Remain”. The referendum was only advisory, in keeping with Britain’s (unwritten) constitution, but the Government had said it would implement the people’s decision. In March this year, Mrs May invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, starting the clock ticking on a two year exit process. But as soon became clear, two years is not nearly long enough to entangle more than 40 years of legislative and regulatory integration. Hence Mrs May’s suggestion in her Florence speech that there should be a transition period of about two years, following the theoretical departure at the end of March 2019, during which the relationship with the EU, in trading terms at least, would be more or less the same. This sort of argument has been rightly derided as having one’s cake and eating it. Besides, it is probably over-optimistic to believe that everything will be sorted out even by March 2021.

EU and UK flags marchMeanwhile, the adverse effects of Brexit are already being felt. The pound sterling fell against the euro and the dollar, prompting a rise in inflation. Yesterday, following Mrs May’s speech, Moody’s downgraded the UK’s credit rating. Thousands of EU citizens who have been working in the UK have already left, driven out by the uncertainty of their situation and the overt hostility from some more extreme Brexiteers. The NHS is in crisis because of the shortage of nurses and in London, many restaurants have closed off sections because they cannot get enough waiting staff as EU workers leave. Fruit will literally rot in the fields of some British farms this autumn, for the same reason. Over the next year or so it is highly likely that things will get worse, which is why the British electorate should be given the opportunity of a fresh vote on the deal that the British government’s Brexit team negotiated, with an option to remain in the EU if they don;t like it.

Whether the EU27 would be prepared to let us remain, after causing such disruption since June last year, is another matter. Doubtless British Cabinet Ministers rallied round the Prime Minister yesterday, to congratulate her on her speech, but I fear history will judge that she was actually raising the curtain on what will turn into a Florentine tragedy.

Below is a link to Theresa May’s speech as reported on the Independent’s website. 

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-florence-speech-in-full-read-brexit-plan-eu-talks-single-market-divorce-bill-a7961596.html

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Strong and Cable?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 21st September, 2017

Vince Cable speechLiberal Democrats left sunny Bournemouth this week buoyed by the camaraderie and intellectual stimulation of autumn conference. It was make or break time for new Leader, Sir Vince Cable, who gave us all a rousing send-off with a speech full of meaty political content and a smattering of good jokes. Vince is a serious player; it was he, after all, who warned everyone where finance and the economy were going in the run up to the 2008 recession. And he has had ministerial experience in the Coalition government, notably as Business Secretary. So when he talks about the effects of Brexit, for example, people listen. But the big question is: can having an authoritative leader translate into votes for the party? The LibDems have been stuck around seven per cent in the opinion polls for some time and although the number of LibDem MPs went up from eight to 12 in June, the party’s national vote share actually fell back slightly. When it comes to local elections the picture is a bit more rosy; as Vince himself acknowledges, the rebuilding of LibDem fortunes will, as ever, come from the bottom up. Nonetheless, a lot of the hopes for a Liberal renaissance rest on his shoulders. It was good to hear him at Bournemouth being the champion of Exit from Brexit — a message likely to grow in appeal as the negative consequences of a looming Brexit become ever clearer — but he is no one-trick pony. His speech had plenty of sound messages on a range of issues from funding the NHS to replacing tuition fees with a graduate tax. Given the totally shambolic performance of Theresa May and her UKIPTories recently, the soft Conservative vote must be wobbling, and it hard to see the increasingly left-leaning Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn scooping that up.

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Brexit and Higher Education

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th September, 2017

IMG_2787This morning, the Liberal Democrats’ autumn conference in Bournemouth debated the effects of Brexit on public services in Britain. The impact on NHS staffing as well as the hospitality industry has received quite a lot of media attention, but in my speech I focussed on the situation regarding higher education. For the HE sector, Brexit is a lose-lose situation. UK students may in future excluded from Erasmus plus, restricting their opportunities as well as limiting the positive contribution they may later give as HE lecturers or researchers. The impact on EU and overseas student applications to UK universities and colleges is already being felt, because of the image of Britain as an unwelcoming environment following last year’s EU Referendum, and Brexit hasn’t happened yet. Financially, that is very bad news for those universities that rely on fees from foreign students. Similarly, EU research funding may be cut off. One of the worst effects of the prospects of Brexit, though, is the way that EU academic staff and support staff, of whom there are a great number, including at SOAS, where I teach, feel their status is insecure. Many have already left. So all round, Brexit is a looming disaster. It was however encouraging that this morning’s motion was adopted nem con, and the Party is revved up to campaign for an Exit from Brexit.

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London’s March for Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 10th September, 2017

March for Europe 9 September 2017Yesterday, tens of thousands of us marched through central London, from Hyde Park Corner to Parliament Square, chanting the slogan “Exit Brexit!”. I don’t think the turnout was quite as big as last March, but the atmosphere was just as festive, under the warm, late summer sun, and there was a sea of flags — especially the EU flag, but also the Union flag and those of the UK’s four nations, as well as several EU member states and even some English counties. Before we all set off, Vince Cable, new Leader of the Liberal Democrats, gave a speech by the statue of the Duke of Wellington — a symbolic location, given the Iron Duke’s battles against the French, in an era when European states fought each other. “The Liberal Democrats continue to demand that the public should have a choice when the final outcome and the facts are clear,” Vince said. “Do we want to rush ahead off the cliff, or do we want an exit from Brexit? That choice, that option, has got to remain.”

BresistanceAt Parliament Square there was a rally, with more speeches by politicians and personalities, though sadly this being a weekend, there were no other MPs around at the Houses of Parliament to witness what was going on. At least some of the TV channels and mainstream media were there, though coverage was slight. I know from my own experience of BBC editorial meetings over the years that demonstrations are not considered to be “news” unless they are humongous, like the million people who turned out to try to dissuade Tony Blair from going to war in Iraq in 2003. Charles Kennedy led a huge phalanx of Liberal Democrats on that occasion and it was good yesterday to see a large contingent of LibDems on the March for Europe as well. One thing did concern me, however. Last March many drivers coming down the other side of the road honked their horns and people on the top of tourist buses cheered, whereas there was very little reaction from the public yesterday. Are they now resigned to going over the cliff edge of Brexit, or just too bewildered about what is happening under the Conservative government’s chaotic handling of the matter? Either way, this left me feeling uneasy. So it was cheering in the evening to watch on TV part of the Last Night of the Proms concert from Albert Hall, which was a sea of EU flags as well as British ones. An enterprising team of Remainers had handed out thousands to people going in and they were received with enthusiasm.

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Big Ben’s Bongs Bunged

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st August, 2017

Big Ben repairsAt midday today, Big Ben, the giant bell inside the UK Parliament’s Queen Elizabeth Tower, tolled the hour for the last time for the next four years, while extensive maintenance work is undertaken. It has been suggested that it could be brought back into service for very special occasions; some Brexiteer Conservative MPs not surprisingly have argued that the day of Britain’s planned exit from the European Union, at the end of March 2019, might be one such moment. Some other traditionalists have gone into spasms of simulated outrage about how even the Luftwaffe in World War II failed to silence the Big Ben. Nonetheless, the BBC will doubtless keep broadcasting (from past recordings) the bell’s rich sound, which has been precursor to news programmes for as long as I can remember. There will of course be disappointed tourists unaware of Big Ben’s indisposition, who will stand on the corner of Parliament Square, pointing their cellphone cameras at the tower, mystified when no bongs intone. But a lot of the fuss in the media and on politicians’ lips has been much ado about nothing. It’s not as if the tower had been blown up. Besides, there are more important things that should concern us all, from Donald Trump’s nuclear tango with Kim Jong-Un to Brexit itself. In fact especially Brexit. For whereas the citizens of Seoul would bear the brunt of any North Korean attack, all of us in Britain are going to suffer from Brexit, alas.

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Adventures in the Gardens of Democracy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 20th August, 2017

coverKevin d’Arcy worked freelance for many of Fleet Street’s best-known titles, as well as doing stints at the Economist and Tatler and radio programmes and interviews for the BBC and CBC. So he has been, if not exactly at the heart of events in Britain and the wider world, at least in one of the inner circles. I first met him through the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), of which he was Executive Secretary of the British Section for many years, organising briefings from the great and good from UK and European politics and beyond. But it turned out that we were — and indeed, still are — neighbours, in the borough of Tower Hamlets, where he has put in sterling service as a Chair of School Governors and related activities. Freelancers never truly retire, of course, but now that he has a somewhat less hectic lifestyle, and has notched three exotic marriages on his belt, he has taken to writing books, the latest of which, Reflections in the Gardens of Democracy (Rajah Books, £11), is a pot pourri of journalistic memories and political musings, on everything from working with the late, great Alastair Burnet, to speculating why the EU Referendum was so imperfect in formulation, let alone in outcome. Many of the chapters are short and are rather like listening the the author reminiscing over a glass of wine on a sunny afternoon in Bow — and nothing wrong with that. His style is both slick and engaging. AEJ members and other journalistic colleagues will find many tidbits of gossip. But anyone with an interest in politics and the media should also find something to amuse, if only the roll-call of famous hacks and politicos, past and present.

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Pound Euro Parity?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 19th August, 2017

Pound Euro exchange rateIn the run-up to last year’s EU Referendum, many UKIP and Tory Brexiteers proudly wore pound signs (£) in their jackets, symbolising for them the strength of Britain standing alone. But I wonder how they are feeling now that the pound sterling has sunk so much in value? Airport currency exchanges in the UK this week have been offering just under one euro per pound and at ATMs on the Continent the exchange rate is not much better, So for UK travellers going to the Continent, things are about a quarter more expensive than they were in June 2016. People staying at home are being hit, too, as inflation caused by higher import prices is now exceeding wage rises. Of course, some exporters are benefitting from sterling’s fall, but for many of them that boon will be short-lived, as more expensive imported raw materials and components will mean that their costs will rise, and so must their prices. So the net effect of voting Leave last year has been that most people are worse off — and Brexit hasn’t even happened yet! Britain’s economy has meanwhile fallen from being the strongest-growing among OECD countries to the weakest. The Eurozone is doing better than it has for some time and the euro itself has risen against the US dollar, too. Naturally, as a Remainer I believe that the sensible thing now is for the government to admit that Brexit is going to be far worse than they imagined and therefore they will pull the plug on it, organising a referendum for permission to do that, if necessary. But I very much doubt that Theresa May, let alone her Brexit team, has the courage to do that. So the UK may indeed crash out of the EU in 2019. And I would not be surprised if some future UK government has to go knocking at the EU’s door, asking to be let back in, accepting the euro and all.

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Stefan Zweig on My Mind

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 16th August, 2017

Stefan ZweigI’ve been thinking a lot about the 1930s recently, what with the rise of xenophobia and intolerance on both sides of the Atlantic and the current supremacy of Donald Trump and the Brexiteers. Surely things must get better, one imagines, yet the lessons of between the two World Wars suggests not necessarily. What should one do if things continue to deteriorate from a liberal perspective? One solution would be to make permanent my Brazilian bolt-hole, where I have spent the past month and increasing amounts of time over the past 30 years. But would that be escapism? The same dilemma confronted the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, many of whose books I read when I lived in Belgium in the 1970s. He was first blessed with enormous success until damned and driven away by the Nazis, because of his Jewish heritage. After gaining British citizenship, he eventually moved to Brazil, where he committed suicide, together with his second wife, in 1942, on hearing news of the fall of Singapore. Some of his erstwhile friends criticised his flight to safety in South America as well as his pacifism, while others lamented the loss of a good and prolific writer and biographer, if not always a great one. I visited the Zweig’s house in Petrópolis, outside Rio de Janeiro, some years ago and thought what an idyllic place for a writer it was in many ways. But Stefan Zweig could not bear the thought that the world was doomed to be controlled by fascists and the like. Alas, he therefore missed the redemptive defeat of Hitler, Mussolini and Imperial Japan. So perhaps even if I do decide to settle in Brazil some time in the not too distant future I shouldn’t let hope die.

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