Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘European Commission’

10 Years of 12 Star Culture

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 31st October, 2017

Straw decoration FinlandThis evening I was at the 12 Star Gallery in Europe House (the offices of the Representation of the European Commission in Westminster, London, rather deliciously, as Europe House located in the building in Smith Square that used to be the Tory Party HQ — remember that picture of a triumphant Maggie Thatcher, waving from an upstairs window in 1979?). Anyway, tonight’s exhibition on the ground floor was of work by the Finnish artist, Pirjo Vaisanen: Straw Dimensions, building on the Finnish tradition of Christmas decorations (often in the form of mobiles) made of straw. Straw is an interesting medium for artists to work in; seemingly fragile, it is actually very strong, yet when wet can be shaped into interesting forms. I particularly loved one of her 3D compositions, which to me represented a Japanese Kabuki actor, seen from behind.

12 Star galleryThis year is doubly significant, as it is the 100th anniversary of Finland’s declaration of independence (from Russia) in December 1917, as well as the tenth anniversary of the 12 Star Gallery, which, under the expert and imaginative guidance of the Commission’s Cultural Attaché in London, Jeremy O’Sullivan, has put on an extraordinary range of exhibitions and other events over the past decade — initially at the Representation’s old offices, opposite the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, also in Westminster, and latterly at Europe House. Culture is an extremely important part of European cooperation; people who believe that the EU is all about economics and regulations are, frankly, missing the point. Over the years, I have been happy to write for the London representation, originally on Jeremy’s culture website and more recently contributing to two books marking the decade of  EC involvement in cultural activities throughout the UK, often in collaboration with the Cultural Institutes or Embassies of the EU member states concerned. I was pleased to be able to “top and tail” the latest book,  10 Years of 12 Star Culture, in the sense that I wrote both the Introduction and the final chapter (on Festivals). It is a handsome volume, in a royal blue cover, beautifully illustrated; a tribute to what has been, and what could still be, if Brits came to their senses and rejected Brexit.

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EU’s Green Light to Franco-German Refugee Plan

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 7th September, 2015

Merkel Hollanderefugees 1The European Commission has today endorsed a plan put forward by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French President Francois Hollande over the weekend in response to the current refugee and migrant crisis. Germany has agreed to take in 40,000 refugees and France 30,000. Smaller quotas have been allocated to several other richer European countries such as Austria. However, despite receiving the Commission’s imprimatur the Plan is still rejected by a number of formerly Communist central and eastern European member states, notably the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Poland has said it will take up to 2,000 refugees, though the Commission is asking the Poles to take in six times that many. You might be wondering where Britain is in all this. Well, as so often, it is outside. Britain, Ireland and Denmark have an opt-out from EU arrangements on refugees and asylum-seekers. Ireland, to its credit, has nonetheless offered to take in 600 asylum-seekers. Denmark, to its shame, has launched a campaign in ten different languages discouraging asylum-seekers from applying to settle in Denmark. Mr Cameron this afternoon brought moral dignity back to Britain’s tardy response by announcing that the UK will take in 20,000, though staggered over a long period. He is to be quietly congratulated for that, though he would have done himself and Britain far more credit if he had gone along to meet Ms Merkel and Mr Hollande to make this a trilateral Plan instead of a Franco-German one. Alas, Mr Cameron does not really “do” Europe, which is why under his watch the UK is becoming increasingly marginalised from the EU and seemingly ever nearer the exit door.

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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.


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The Sahel

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 20th February, 2013

Sahel womenSahelI had a distinct sense of déja vu all over again at Europe House in Westminster this evening at the screening of a short documentary film “The Human Chain” (directed by Riccardo Russo). The film was co-produced by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the European Commission, to highlight their joint response to the 2012 drought and consequent hunger in the region that forms the southern belt to the Sahara. The déja vu was because I was in the Sahel in 1979, researching a report for the World Council of Churches (WCC) on The Use and Abuse of Food Aid and more than 30 years on this all seemed achingly familiar. I kept in touch with region, being the founder-Secretary of a British NGO SOS Sahel, and then later (1991-2000) being Mauritania’s Honorary Consul to the Court of St. James’s. The Sahel is still subject to cyclical drought and famine, despite worthy efforts to stop soil erosion through tree-planting and the like. Climate change has certainly not helped. Greg Barrow of the WFP (a former BBC East Africa correspondent) moderated the debate after the film screening this evening, with a panel made up of current BBC correspondent Mark Doyle (hot foot from the mayhem in Mali), Maya Mailer from Oxfam and the new Head of the European Commission’s representation in London, Jackie Minor. There were a number of old Africa hands in the audience who made contributions, including a radical blast froma colleague of  my Food Aid past Benny Denbitzer, who was fairly hostile to the film. I spoke sharing his depression, not because because the film is bad — on the contrary, it is very good, using some really well-chosen and sympathetically portrayed vox populi. I was depressed because so little has changed and I don’t see how the Sahel can escape from the spiral of deprivation unless there is a holistic approach to the region’s challenges by both the region’s governments and the European Union (and its constituent Member States), as well as international organizations such as WFP and aid agencies, but extending further than mere aid and even conventional development. Europe does have to take a certain responsibility for the Sahel, for both historical and geographical reasons, and that needs to be embraced in a spirit of equal partnership with the countries and people concerned. All this needs to go far beyond the security and anti-terrorism partnership proclaimed by David Cameron or Francois Hollande. Otherwise the Sahel will be condemned to suffer for eternity.

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European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th November, 2012

2012 is the European Year for Active Ageing and Soldarity between Generations, though unless you read something like the Society pages of the Guardian I’d be surprised if you were aware of the fact, as ‘Europe’ is such a toxic word for so much of the British media at least. But the concept behind this year is a good one: raising awareness of the contribution that older people make to society. It seeks to  encourage policymakers and relevant stakeholders to help create better oportunities for active ageing and interaction and understanding between the generations. Active Ageing basically means growing old while remaining healthy and well-occupied; the era in which people automatically retired at 60 or 65 is over — thanks partly to European laws. If people want to work longer, they can. And as the population gets ever more elderly, it is important that there are active 60 and 70-year-olds. The second half of the European Year’s focus is strengthening solidarity between generations; too often young people in a community don’t interact with older folk and vice versa, unlike in previous epochs. But that generation gap does not have to persist. Indeed, organisations such as Magic Me, in my home borough of Tower Hamlets, have for years been running projects that bring together schoolchildren and local residents of 60+, to get them to express themselves artistically. Last night Europe House, the European Commission and Parliament’s representation in London, hosted the opening night of an exhibition of some of the recent work done by Magic Me, which I previewed on the Commission’s culture website: . Magic Me’s Director, Susan Langford, and the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, Rushanara Ali, spoke about the impact this has in Tower Hamlets and it was heartening to see how well the schoolchildren and elderly who were present related to each other.

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Fair Trials International

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 8th November, 2011

Fair Trials International (previously known as Fair Trials Abroad) is a unique UK-based organisation which campaigns on behalf of people unjustly or cruelly imprisoned around the world, notably those who have been waiting years for a trial or else have been extradited unfairly, or convicted in absentia. Although its remit is global, a substantial proportion of FTI’s work, surprisingly, relates to the European Union, under a project entitled Justice in Europe (part funded by the European Commission). The legal system in a number of EU states does not live up to the high standard of some others, as victims such as Andrew Symeou (who was extradited to Greece and held in horrible conditions before being aquitted) and Edmond Arapi (an Albanian now naturalised Briton who was wrongly convicted of murder in absentia in Italy) can testify. As members of the British Section of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) were told this lunchtime at a meeting in Europe House by FTI’s Chief Executive, Jago Russell, many of the cases his organisation takes up are related to the European Arrest Warrant. This instrument — brought in following the 9/11 atrocities with the support of various parties, not least the LibDem MEP Graham Watson — allows courts in EU member states to demand the extradition of people wanted on criminal charges within their jurisdiction. That has produced some excellent results, such as the swift return of one of the 7/7 London bombers from Italy. But it has also been misusued. Poland has acquired an unenviable reputation for using the EAW for trivial cases, such as demanding the extradition of someone accused of stealing a pig. But it would be wrong to throw the baby out with the bathwater — as some Eurosceptic Tories and UKIP spokespeople would like — by scrapping the EAW. What is needed is to make sure its use is limited to serious crimes. Moreover, as Jago Russell said, some EU member states really need to bring their legal and prison systems up to scratch, including getting rid of corruption, nepotism and the like. I asked him whether it should not be possible to put pressure on Poland to curb unnecessary extraditions while Warsaw holds the rotating presidency of the EU, to which the answer was that the Poles would love to, but under their post-Communist constitution they have to pursue every case to its ultimate conclusion. Clearly a need for some reform there then!


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Europe Day 2010

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 9th May, 2010

Today is the 60th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration, which really laid the groundwork for what is now the European Union, by initiating the concept of shared sovereignty. Hence 9 May being celebrated as Europe Day (though it is sometimes referred to by Eurocrats in Brussels in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner as St Schuman’s Day). It is the time when those people who are firm believers in the European project can reaffirm their support and mark the EU’s achievements. Not surprisingly, given the high level of Euro-scepticism in Britain, Europe Day makes less of a splash here than in many of our fellow member states. But on Friday evening (Sunday not really being feasible), there was a Europe Day Flamenco music concert by Paco Pena and his ensemble in St John’s Smith Square, co-sponsored by the London offices of the European Commission and the European Parliament and the Embassy of Spain (which currently holds the rotating EU presidency). A native of Cordoba, Paco Pena is a composer and dramatist, as well as a guitarist and has been responsible for creating a fusion of traditional and modern styles in flamenco, which is itself a genre drawing on several traditions, notably gypsy and Arab. It was highly appropriate that the concert was held in Smith Square, as later this year number 32 Smith Square will become London’s new Europe House, housing both the Commission and Parliament offices, as well as the 12 Star Gallery for European cultural events. If the address sounds familiar that’s because it used to be the Conservative Party headquarters — an irony that is enough to make some departed Tory Eurosceptics turn in their graves.

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European Parliament Vets the New Commission

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 10th January, 2010

Tomorow a series of Question and Answer sessions will begin in the European Parliament, to see if it will approve the nominees for the next European Commission. Each nominated Commissioner will have a three hour grilling, starting with Cathy Ashton from noon to 3pm tomorrow. Baroness Ashton — who was briefly Leader of the House of Lords before being catapulted over to Brussels to replace Peter Mandelson as EU Trade Commissioner, when he was brought back into the Labour government in Britain — was the somewhat suprising choice for the new High Representative for EU Foreign Policy; suprising given her relative lack of experience in foreign affairs. She will also become a Vice-President of the Commission, if approved. However, she has impressed quite a lot of people in Brussels with her quiet ability, so it will be interesting to see how she performs in the Parliament’s spotlight. It’s a good thing that the MEPs can block the nomination of the Commission if they don’t like what they see, though the grotesque situation at present is that if they have objections they have to reject the lot, not just one or two, which clearly needs to be changed.

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Speaking Truth to Power in Brussels

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th October, 2009

Berlaymont and flagsI spent most of the day at a seminar, just over the street for the European Commision’s Berlaymont Building, celebrating 30 years of existence of the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA). In the early 1970s, soon after Britain joined the then European Community, a number of us Quakers living in Brussels — most working for the European institutions, but me as a journalist initially with  Reuters and then freelance — decided that there deserved to be a ‘still, small voice’ of reason in the self-styled Capital of Europe, raising humanitarian and social concerns with the European institutions and with NATO, whose headquarters is in the same city. This is what Quakers historically have called ‘speaking turth to power’. It took us four years to persuade the wider Quaker community that this was an appropriate thing to do. Though the Religious Society of Friends (as Quakers are more properly known) had long had offices essentially lobbying the United Nations in both New York and Geneva, some Friends (notably in Norway and Sweden) were worried that we would be getting too close to mammon by embarking on a similar operation in Brussels.

William PennAnyway, to cut a long story short, the ‘Scandinavian hesitations’ (as they became known) were overcome and we set up QCEA in 1979, initially on a very modest basis. Since then it has grown significantly (not always entirely smoothly) and has tackled such issues as conscientious objection, the treatment of women prisoners, sustainable living and peace witness. As we were reminded today, the origins of the project — and indeed of some of the European institutions — date back much further. Three hundred years ago, the Quaker William Penn — who went on to found what he hoped would be a peaceable kingdom in Pennsylvania — wrote a pamphlet while he was studying in France, at a time when the continent had been ravaged by decades of war, saying that what was needed was a sort of European Parliament, where people would discuss, not fight. Well, we now have one and for the past 30 years (coincidentally since the birth of QCEA), the citizens of the ever-expanding European Union have been able to vote directly for members of the European Parliament. I still hope to be among their number one day, then my own mission will be complete.


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Ireland Gets a Second Chance Referendum

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th September, 2009

Irish referendum posterWith just three days to go before Irish voters give their second verdict on the Lisbon Treaty in a national referendum, the polls are predicting a comfortable, if not landslide, victory for the Yes campaign. To the dismay of most of the political parties in Eire (though to the undisguised glee of UKIP and the Conservatives in Britain), the Irish voted No last year — a substantial proportion of them because they felt they didn’t know enough about the treaty. Some people, like millionaire Declan Ganley, were and still remain opposed in principle to the advancement of the European project. But many others were cajoled into voting No by being told (wrongly) that the Republic would have to allow abortion and a raft of other things which (rightly) in fact remain a matter of national, not European competence.

Irish referendum poster 2So why is a Yes vote much more likely this time? Partly it is because the other 26 member states have given Ireland a few concessions, notably guaranteeing that there will always be an Irish member of th European Commission. But mainly it is because people are better informed this time and they have been shaken by the economic and financial crisis that makes it perilous to be marginalised from the rest of Europe (a message that David Cameron and William Hague should take to heart). The Yes campaign has been much better this time, employing some strong, simple messages such as: the choice is between ruin and recovery; on October 2nd vote Yes — Put Ireland First. So despite the fact that Brian Cowen’s lacklustre government is currently deeply unpopular, and the bumptious Michael O’Leary of Ryanair has somewhat crassly offered one million free flights if there is a Yes vote, there is room for optimism that Ireland will now enable the European Union to make necessary reforms to move forward in confidence in a world in which greater European integration is needed more than ever.

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