Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Brussels’

Shout-out for Brussels

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 22nd March, 2016

Brussels attackThe latest terrorist attacks in Brussels made me sick to the bottom of my soul. Targeting modes of transport — Zaventem airport and the city’s metro system — is the worst kind of random killing as well as an attempt to scare people away not just from the Belgian capital but from travelling altogether. Freedom of movement is one of the most precious things we citizens of the European Union have gained from the EU, and violent fanatics must not be allowed to undermine that. Having lived in Brussels for seven years, initially working for Reuters, subsequently as a freelancer, I have a particular affection for the place. The Belgians themselves have a particular attitude to life, perhaps influenced by being occupied twice in the 20th century, which I appreciated: low-key, quirky and stubborn, which may not sound the most attractive of national characteristics but which proved brilliant for survival. Of course, the Brussels attacks were not just aimed at Belgium; the symbolism of Brussels as the capital of Europe and HQ of NATO obviously made it a tempting target. This has happened twice now. Twice too often. While we wish the security forces well in their attempts to apprehend the culprits and dismantle terrorist cells, let us also shout out for Brussels and for all who live and work there. Courage! Nous sommes tous Bruxelles!

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David Cameron’s D-Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 18th February, 2016

Cameron EU 1The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, is in Brussels today for the most important European Council meeting of his time in office. He has to persuade the other 27 EU Heads of Government that an acceptable compromise on his demands for EU reform has been reached, enabling him to return to London to campaign for a “Remain” vote in the forthcoming IN/OUT EU Referendum. It is known that several central and eastern European countries, including Poland, are still unhappy about the key British request that the UK be allowed to deny in-work benefits to EU migrants for a period of four years after their arrival in the country. Yet the President of the EU Council, Donald Tusk — himself a former Polish Prime Minister — declared late yesterday that EU leaders have ‘no choice’ but to do a deal on Mr Cameron’s demands. The prospect of Brexit — the UK’s withdrawal following a ‘Leave’ victory in the Referendum — is seen in Brussels as almost too horrible to contemplate. This is not just because most other member states genuinely value British membership and the way Anglo-Saxon values and working practices contribute to the EU mix but even more importantly because there is a fear that were Britain to leave other member states would start to make difficult demands and the whole European project could start to unravel. The discussions on the proposed British reforms will begin at 1645 today and I know from my own past experience covering EU Council meetings for Reuters that these could go on well into the night. If the leaders still have not reached a satisfactory compromise then, they will begin again over breakfast tomorrow morning. But even if Mr Cameron is able to claim victory when he returns to London (which is still not guaranteed) his battles are not over. Within the ruling Conservative Party, and indeed even within the Cabinet, there is deep hostility to the European Union and as soon as the Prime Minister is back in Downing Street those Tory EU opponents will join the campaign for Brexit with all guns blazing.

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A Liberal Response to the Digital Revolution

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 6th June, 2015

imageimageTechnology is driving the European recovery, but if the EU is to remain globally competitive it needs to educate more of its labour force in relevant skills or allow in talent from elsewhere. A million jobs in Europe are unfilled because of a lack of people with the necessary IT skills, or so a seminar organised by the European Liberal ALDE Party in Brussels was informed yesterday. One of a series of ALDE events under the title Reclaiming Liberalism the seminar heard presentations from representatives of Microsoft (our hosts in their Brussels office), Deloitte and AT&T as well as comments from the German FDP politician Markus Loening. A useful case study of e-governance in Estonia — which I witnessed for myself on a Press trip to Tallinn a few years ago — was also included. Markus in particular focused on some of the politico-moral challenges, such as finding the balance between risks and opportunities offered by the digital revolution and it was agreed that care needs to be taken to ensure that we do not have a situation in which a privileged few gain great wealth from technological development whereas the masses remain poor, accentuating the already serious levels of inequality in the post-modern world. The sheer scale and speed of new technology development are mind-blowing, especially as we enter an era of computers and robots with cognitive abilities. While welcoming many of the new possibilities it is essential that there is a degree of regulation, as well as adequate controls over their use and misuse by governments, intelligence services and commercial companies.

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GDIF 2014 at the Cutty Sark

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 20th June, 2014

GDIF 2014GDIF MuaréThe Greenwich and Docklands International Festival (GDIF) has relatively quickly established itself as one of Britain’s premier outdoor cultural events, all the remarkable because it is FREE. Artistic Director Bradley Hemmings has a keen eye for what’s hot in Continental Europe and beyond and the Festival makes brilliant use of the diverse historic and contemporary venues on offer in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, as well as over the river in Tower Hamlets and Newham. This evening, as I made my way to the GDIF opening reception at the Cutty Sark (impressively reborn after the terrible fire of 2007 and now exposed in all its copper-bottomed glory in a fine exhibition space) I watched a company of dancers from Antwerp performing on the surrounding piazza, in front of a mirrored mobile van in which 20 privileged spectators had a keyhole view of the action from the inside. At the reception, fitting tribute was played to sponsors, including the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Arts Council England and this time the Flanders representation in London. Whilst we invitees swapped notes over canapés and wine, a select few were wired into another dynamic experience, their perception controlled by computer, which gave them the impression of walking through the streets of Brussels, including at one stage carefully stepping along a narrow balustrade in front of Belgium’s Palais de Justice. Later, the guests moved to the Greenwich Maritime Museum to watch Muaré, a psychadelic extravagance involving aerial theatre by artists from Spain and Argentina descending from giant revolving optical art mobiles. The Festival runs on until 28 June and I am particularly looking forward to events in Mile End Park, just along the road from my home, and at the Olympic Park in Newham.

Link: http://www.festival.org/festival/overview/12/2014/

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Do Not Lose Euro-heart!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 17th June, 2014

The following first appeared in yesterday’s London Liberal Democrats’ weekly email bulletin:

JF at homeThe result of the recent Euro-elections was deeply dispiriting, not least because for the first time ever the Liberal Democrats pinned our pro-European colours to the mast — the only major party to do so. Yet we lost all but one of our MEPs (the exception being Catherine Bearder in South East England), including London’s Sarah Ludford, who has done so much good over the past 15 years, especially in the field of Justice and Home Affairs. At least we do not “lose” Sarah completely, as she can now return to the House of Lords and play an active role there, with all the benefits of her Euro-experience.

The important thing now is to learn from the May 2014 experience and to rebuild, so that we ensure we once again have at least one LibDem MEP for London in 2019. I believe there are two main lessons, though other people may suggest more. First, although being the Party of IN was the right strategy, the message was wrong: it should have been “We’re IN it to Fix It!”, as we are the party of EU reform, not of the status quo. Second, whereas I understand the argument for targeting held seats and strong boroughs (especially when there were local elections on the same day), we cannot just ignore two-thirds of London’s electorate in a PR election. So we need somehow to raise the funds for a London-wide Freepost in 2019.

On Friday, I was in Brussels for the governing Council of the Alliance of European Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), our “family” in the European Parliament. Despite the dire results in Britain and Germany the mood was good, as ALDE member parties had done well elsewhere. So I am returning to London re-energised and ever more determined to make 2019 a year for London Liberal Democrat Euro-celebration!

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Lobbying and the European Elections

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 19th April, 2014

lobbyingMEPs in Brussels are used to being lobbied — by business groups, farmers, trade associations and NGOs of every description. This year, in the run up to next month’s European elections, MEP candidates are getting the same treatment as well. I have already replied to over 1,000 lobbying emails (over half of them from the Trade Justice/World Development Movement) and we are still over a month away from polling day. Because of the Liberal Democrat debacle over the NUS pledge about tuition fees before the 2010 general election in the UK, LibDem MEPs have decided not to sign pledges as a general rule, but I am prepared to view each one on its merits, on a case-by-case basis. Thus I have been happy to sign up to human rights pledges (including on LGBT+ issues) and various animal rights pledges, from the RSPCA to Horse Welfare. Some of the other pledges are so detailed, and yet sometimes also prone to ambiguity, that I have preferred to make my own statement of beliefs and intents, for example with example to the digital rights campaign. I know some candidates get browned off by the hundreds of emails flooding into their inbox each day, but I celebrate that as part of a healthy democratic process. If you can’t stand the heat, keep out of the kitchen. I aim to answer every single email I get in this election campaign — though I know that means some late nights sitting over my computer!

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We Mustn’t Take Peace for Granted

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th April, 2014

Battle of the SommeIn this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War many minds have been turning to the issues of war and peace, and when I make speeches at hustings or rallies in the current European election campaign I always make the point that the founding fathers of what is now the European Union wanted to enmesh the economies of France and Germany (in particular) so that war in western Europe would be unthinkable. And so it appears. But it is all too easy for us today to take that for granted. As a child of the 1950s, I was very much aware of the legacy of the Second World War — the bomb sites, the drab unpainted unrestored buildings, the dreary food and the tail-end of rationing — but I was too young to see National Service. So it was perhaps a little perverse of me to go off to war voluntarily at the age of 18 — as a journalist in Vietnam. What I saw there burned into my heart a hatred for war and for all the human emotions connected with it. I attended my first Quaker meeting there, and joined the Society of Friends when I went up to Oxford. And although Reuters sent me off to comfortable Brussels when I joined the news agency after university, the lure of conflict zones was too great, and relaunched as a freelance commentator and broadcaster I covered a whole range of bloody situations, from Israel/Palestine to Central America and Angola. That was not because I revelled in the suffering. Quite the contrary. But I believed passionately that it needed to be reported, so people might learn that humanity should develop ways of resolving differences and rivalries more constructively. I still feel that today, as Vladimir Putin seems intent on infiltrating deeper into eastern Ukraine, alarming not just Kiev but several other of Russia’s neighbours. In the recent Clegg versus Farage EU IN/OUT debates in Britain, Nick Clegg stressed the importance of Britain’s EU membership for jobs — and of course that is true. But I shall also carry on talking about something that is not just related to the economy or livelihoods: the EU — enlarged a decade ago to take in formerly Communist states of central and eastern Europe — is a brilliant example of how to do things differently, about how to live togeter in peace, celebrating diversity. Fall back on nationalism, as Nigel Farage and some of his more unsavoury counterparts on the Continent would like us to do, will only lead to renewed tensions between peoples and, yes, the reappearance of the spectre of war.

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The EU and Ukraine

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 6th March, 2014

EU UkraineEuropean Union Heads of Government met in emergency summit in Brussels today to discuss what to do about Ukraine. Although there was not complete agreement about how forcefully to react to provocative moves by President Putin and pro-Russian forces inside Crimea, everyone understood the need to prevent a further escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. Interestingly, Romania offered to act as an honest-broker between the EU and Moscow, which is a promising development; certainly, diplomacy will remain Europe’s tack for the time being, though European Council President Herman van Rompuy warned that various economic sanctions will be imposed if Russia does not change its tune soon. As it is, preparatory talks for the panned G8 Summit in Sochi have been abandoned, and the mood in both Washington and London is in favour of cold-shouldering Russia from the G8, which could possibly revert to being the G7. Meanwhile, ominously, the state-oriented Russian TV channel Russia Today showed viewers a map of Russia into which Crimea had already been incorporated. And the Crimean regional government’s parliament voted to hold a referendum to secede from Ukraine, to be held on 16 March — i.e. in 10 days time. That not only violates Ukraine’s constitution but would also make any proper debate about the pros and cons of the status quo, independence, devo max or incorporation into Russia impossible. So the situation remains extremely tense. However, the EU is right to try to pursue the diplomatic route — while offering financial and moral assistance to the provisional government in Kiev — rather than inflaming the situation further.

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The ALDE Leadership Deal

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 3rd February, 2014

Olli RehnGuy VerhofstadtThe Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) held a special congress in Brussels at the weekend, to elect the Party’s candidate for President of the European Commission. At least, that is what the meeting was originally intended to do, with delegates from all over Europe (paying our own way, incidentally) gathering to choose between the Finnish Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, Olli Rehn, and the head of the ALDE group in the European Parliament and former Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt. The two men are as different as chalk and cheese, the former dourly northern European, the latter almost Mediterranean in his flamboyant enthusiasm. It would have been fun to have a proper, competitive debate between the two and then a vote (which I suspect the overtly federalist Verhofstadt would have won), but recently the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and a German colleague put a deal together according to which Vehofstadt would indeed be the ALDE candidate for Commission President and Olli Rehn would be put up for some other plum EU job. Verhofstadt is extremely unlikely to actually become Commission President, unless neither the EPP (centre right) nor the Socialists manages to get their candidate chosen), though Rehn should get something. UK Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg had made no secret that he preferred Rehn, as the “safe” alternative. Anyway, for us poor delegates, deprived of a real election, all we could do was say “yay” or “nay” to the deal. Many Brits voted “nay” (or abstained), in my case as a protest at the way the deal had been put together. But Verhofstadt was duly endorsed by a very comfortable margin. He’ll certainly add colour to the European election campaign, though not necessarily the sort of colour Nick Clegg and Co will appreciate.

Link: http://www.aldeparty.eu

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Why the ECHR Matters

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 10th June, 2013

European Court of Human RightsECHRThe European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and its associated Court in Strasbourg is a favourite Aunt Sally of right-wing Conservative MPs and Britain’s tabloid Press (which these days, alas, includes the broadsheet Daily Telegraph), but unjustly so. The Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as it is more formally known, has since its drafting in 1950 and later adoption by the Council or Europe done a huge amount of useful work in promoting the Rule of Law throughout Europe (including Eastern Europe, Russia and Turkey; only the dictatorship of Belarus is outside the fold), as well as providing individuals who feel their rights have been violated by their own State to seek redress. Despite the fact that the Court is a separate institution from the European Union it still gets tarred with the Brussels brush by virulent Europhobes, who seem to believe that the United Kingdom has completely abandoned its national sovereignty to foreigners — not that many of these anti-Europeans seem particularly worried about the fact that US influence is far more marked in various aspects of British public and foreign policy, not to mention our culture. Two things have been like juicy bones to these frothing xenophobic hounds. First, the Court’s ruling that it was wrong for the UK to deprive all prisoners of their rights to vote, no matter how short their sentence or trivial their offence. Theresa May could easily have got round that issue by accepting that prisoners with a sentence of less than six months should still retain their vote, but others not — a compromise that would have satisfied Strasbourg. The other even more famous ECHR “outrage”, of course, relates to the prolonged delay in the expulsion of the vile Islamist extremist Abu Qatada because there has not been up till now a credible assurance from his home country, Jordan, that evidence that might be used against him in any trial in Amman would not have been obtained by torture. Now I, like almost everyone in this country, long to see the back of Abu Qatada, who has milked the system here, including claiming benefits. But we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater by saying, oh well, as he is so wicked it does not matter if witnesses against him have been tortured. When we accept that, then we surrender our commitment to human rights (as the last Labour government alas did, with respect to extraordinary rendition). Moreover, it is utter nonsense for Theresa May to float the idea — seized on by relish by some of her backbench MPs and the right-wing Press — that Britain could temporarily withdraw from ECHR so it can expel Abu Qatada, then reapply once he is out of the way. Anyone who knows anything about International Law and diplomacy knows that is shamelessly playing to the gallery while undermining the very foundations of our credibility as a nation. What is really lacking, I believe, is a concerted campaign in Britain to champion what the ECHR actually achieves, in which politicians, NGOs and the enlightened media should participate. It is not just the future of our involvement with the Strasbourg Court that is at stake but our values as well.

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