Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Graham Watson’

A New Deal for a New Europe?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 27th September, 2015

imageimageSpending a gloriously warm, sunny late summer afternoon indoors in a lecture theatre is maybe not everyone’s idea of fun, but those people who signed up for the New Europeans’ debate on A New Deal for a New Europe but didn’t come this afternoon really missed a treat. Three major political groups from the European Parliament — the Socialists (PES), the Liberals (ALDE) and the European People’s Party (EPP, from which David Cameron, alas, withdrew the Conservatives) — were represented by the current President of the EPP group in the parliament, former Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Sergei Stanishev, the President of the ALDE Party (and former group leader) Sir Graham Watson, and Dirk Hazelll, Chairman of the UK Chapter of the EPP. There was a remarkable degree of agreement between the three, perhaps partly because all believe fervently that Britain ought to stay in the EU, both for the sake of Britain and for the sake of the EU. Graham Watson feared that in the current mood in the UK the referendum vote (on some still unspecified date in 2016 or 2017) could go the wrong way. That is why the “remain” campaign needs to fight hard. Sergei Stanishev (who was en route to the Labour Party conference in Brighton) spoke of the need for a truly European response to the great challenges the Union currently faces, including the refugee and migrant “crisis”.

imageDespite being a former Chairman of London Conservatives, Dirk Hazell lambasted David Cameron for his failure of leadership and the folly of the ambivalent Tory attitude towards Europe. Graham interestingly stated he thought that Britain ought to be part of Schengen, which got some murmurs of support from the predominantly young audience, and he argued that maybe Britain should have joined the eurozone when it had the chance, under Tony Blair. The whole history of the subsequent 15 or so years might have been different. Of course, there is not much to be gained (except as an academic exercise) in considering might-have-beens, and in principle the meeting was about the way forward. The eurozone is emerging from its own crisis, though one could be forgiven for not knowing so from reading the British press, but there needs to radical reform of the EU as a whole to make it fit for purpose. The big question for the UK is whether David Cameron can frame positive rather than negative demands for reform, and bring other member states onside through negotiation, rather than scaring them away with impossible demands.

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ALDE in Vienna

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 4th May, 2014

ALDE Rally ViennaThe  NEOS Party in Austria is a new force on the scene, incorporating the former Liberal Forum, but it is predicted to win as much as 14 per cent in this month’s European elections — a figure the UK Liberal Democrats can only envy. This is despite the fact that NEOS is an overtly Federalist Party, calling for a United States of Europe. or maybe that is the reason why, and also why it has attracted so many young, idealistic supporters, who thronged to the Marx Halls in the city for a huge rally on Friday night, at which the speakers included the twin heads of the ALDE (European Liberal Democrats) campaign, Guy Verhofstadt and Olli Rehn, as well as the president of ALDE, Sir Graham Watson. The rally was also the culmination of the ALDE conference and Council, which NEOS had bravely decided to host, despite being the new kid on the block. It all went remarkably smoothly, with no contentious issues raising their ugly head. Indeed, the mood was one of celebration, though in several EU member states the Liberal and Democrat cause is under threat by populist forces on both the right and left.

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ALDE Congress Opens in Good Heart

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 29th November, 2013

Guy VerhofstadtNick CleggThe fight against British Euro-scepticism is on! At the opening session of the London Congress of the ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) Howard Dawber of the Canary Wharf Group (our hosts, as the plenaries are taking place in Canary Wharf’s East Wintergarden) stressed that business and the financial sector strongly support Britain’s membership of the European Union and before handing over to ALDE President Sir Graham Watson underlined the area’s link to Liberalism and Liberal Democracy (William Beveridge did much of his investigation into poverty in the East End, and the Limehouse Declaration establishing the SDP was drawn up at David Owen’s house just up the road), which was noble, given Howard’s political affiliations elsewhere. Graham was in fine rhetorical form, the metaphors rolling off his tongue like the morning mist down the side of a mountain in the Scottish Highlands. He urged everyone to remember as we emerge from a deep recession the core values of social liberalism. Nick Clegg, of course, did not disappoint, speaking without notes about his own by now familiar mixed European heritage and his determination that the European elections will be fought by the Liberal Democrats as the unequivocal party of IN. He argued that the big division in Europe now is not so much between left and right but between those whose minds are closed and those whose minds are open (reflected in politician’s attitudes on such thing as freedom of movement within the European single market and towards others beyond Europe’s frontiers. EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom picked up the issue of Europe’s responsibility towards refugees and asylum seekers, as well as to economic migrants driven by despair to try risky passage across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe. The appalling loss of life off the Italian Lampedusa is only the most striking example of an ongoing humanitarian tragedy. The finale of the opening session was a rousing speech by the (Flemish) President of the ALDE Group in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt. He is an unashamed federalist, but he made clear that he understands the true meaning of federalism, not centralisation, as Euro-sceptics often misrepresent, but empowering downwards. That should mean that there is less but better EU-level regulation. For although the ALDE Party is the most pro-European of all the transnational groups in the European Parliament it is also the party of constructive reform.

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ALDE Comes to London

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th November, 2013

East WintergardenALDE logoIf anyone doubted that only the Liberal Democrats are the true party of IN when it comes to the European Union the opening reception of the ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe) Party Congress at the East Wintergarden in Canary Wharf this evening would have persuaded them. It’s the biggest ever event of its kind and the turnout of members of the 12 governments in which Liberal Democrats are in power (alone or in coalition) was particularly impressive. The UK Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, was of course present and gave a brief speech, as did Sir Graham Watson, President of ALDE (and LibDem MEP for South West England). The working sesssions of the Congress will take place over the next two days, including discussion of the ALDE Manifesto for the May 2014 Euro-elections. All 28 EU member states will be voting then, and all EU citizens who are registered to vote in the UK — and sign a declaration that they will not vote in their country of origin as well — are entitled to vote here. That’s especially important in a global city like London, in which there are an estimated 300,000 French residents and countless other EU migrants. Most of them are the people who are helping London surge out of the economic doldrums (rather than being benefit scroungers, as the Daily Express and other posonous rags would have people believe). Obviously, the LibDems will be targetting them in the run up to May, being the only genuinely pro-European Party, as well as pro-Europeans who normally vote Tory, but who can;t stomach the party’s drift to Euro-phobia. Of course, we in the Liberal Democrats want to see reforms that will make the EU leaner and meaner (in a positive sense). But if you don’t succumb to the siren voices of UKIP and the Tory right, if you’re pro-Britain in the EU then LibDems are the place to be! Many thanks to the Canary Wharf Group for providing the venue, as they have for the London Liberal Democrat spring conference in recent years.

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Graham Watson’s Letters from Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 10th November, 2012

Every week the Liberal Democrat MEP for South West England, Sir Graham Watson, sends out an email newsletter to constituents and other interested subscribers telling them what he has been doing over the previous seven days. It’s deliberately short and written in accessible language, making it lively and user-friendly. Today, at a lunchtime fringe at the ELDR Congress in Dublin, Graham launched a book of his collected newsletters from the past few years, illustrated also with photographs. He admitted that some of his ephemeral pronouncements were proved incorrect later — for example just how easily (or not) the European Commission President Barroso would get his fellow Commissioners approved by the European Parliament. But he urged those of us who are involved in politics to record what we do and say as others can learn from our mistakes as well as from our example. Graham deliberately gave the book the title “Letters from Europe” to underline the fact that in contrast to his childhood, when people talked about the British Isles as being part of Europe along with the Continent, these days the national narrative has shifted, so that the British usually talk about going to or coming from Europe, as if the UK has somehow been cut adrift. As Graham pointed out in his brief remarkls at the launch, Sir Winston Churchill had a much better grasp of the concept of a wider patriotism than most Little Englanders today. The book is edited by Graham’s research assistant Andrew Burgess and is published by Bagehot Publishing, price €10.

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The European Parliament’s New President

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 17th January, 2012

As expected. Martin Schulz of the Socialist Group (S&D) was elected by MEPs to be the new President of the European Parliament today, taking over from former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek of the centre-right Christian Democrats (EPP). But his majority was not a landslide, despite the traditional stitch-up between the two main political groups in the parliament. Two British challengers, Diana Wallis from the LibDems (and therefore ALDE) and Nirj Deva of the Conservatives (ECR) did pick up quite a a lot of support from disaffected main party MEPs as well as from members of their own minority groups. The system is a farce, and does nothing to enhance the already shaky reputation of the European Parliament amongst the electorate across the EU’s 27 member states. Sir Graham Watson, former ALDE leader and now President of the ELDR (European Liberal Democrats, which also also embraces parties from European states outside the EU) was one of the first to tilt Don Quixote-like at the windmills of the Euro-parliamentary structure and Diana Wallis deserves credit for picking up the baton with panache. Meanwhile, few people in Britain, other than Euro-political nerds, will have any idea who Martin Schulz is. After all, most of the British electorate cannot name a single one of their own MEPs, so why should they have heard of a German one? But this is a pity, to say the least. The British public is poorly served by domestic media coverage of the European Parliament and its doings, in stark contrast to the citizens of Spain, for example. Anyway, it is worth knowing something about the man who will be presiding over sessions of the Parliament for the next two-and-a-half years. Born in an area where the German, Dutch and Belgian borders meet, Martin Schulz is unusual amongst MEPs in being a bookseller by profession; he ran his own bookshop in Wuerselen from 1982 to 1994. But he was politically motivated from an early age. He joined the German Social Democratic Party at the age of 19, and 12 years later, he was elected Mayor of Wuerselen. According to his official European Parliament potted biography, this experience ‘shaped my enthusiasm for Europe and the conviction that I wanted to help build and advance the European project.’ So no doubts there about how the new President wants to further the cause of European integration. But it will be interesting to see how he handles debates as he is a more fiery character than Jerzy Buzek, who has aptly been described by Andrew Duff MEP as ‘gentlemanly’. A few fireworks might be no bad thing, as they might attract to the Parliament a little more of the attention that it definitely deserves as it accrues more powers and influence in the decision- and law-making processes of the EU.

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ELDR Congress Palermo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 26th November, 2011

There has been a distinctively festive air at the ELDR Congress in Palermo, Sicily, over the past few days, not because the eurozone’s crisis has markedly eased — it hasn’t — but because the Italians are feeling a sense of huge relief at getting rid of Silvio Berlusconi. Our hosts have been Italia dei Valori, who have been working hard to put some integrity back into Italian politics; one can only wish them well, and trust that former EU Commissioner Mario Monti, the newly appointed Italian Prime Minister, can help steer Italy out of its economic whirlpool. The EU budget was the principal theme of the Congress, though I was personally much more motivated by the parralel debates and workshop on the so-called Arab Sprin and how Europe should engage with it; boosting trade with the region was the answer provided by EU Commissioner Karel de Gucht, but I would argue that building a greater sense of solidarity between the peoples of Europe and North Africa and the Middle East is equally important. De Gucht also led the tributes to Annemie Nuyts, the Flemish Liberal who has been President of ELDR for the past six years. Her valedictory speech was rather downbeat, noting that whereas five years ago the ELDR encompassed 10 Prime Ministers, now there are only two (Estonia and the Netherlands). However, her compatriot Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian Prime Minister and now leader of the ALDE (Liberal) Group in the European Parliament, gave a barnstorming performance that raised all our spirits and there was a fittnig finale to the formal part of the proceedings with a speech by incoming ELDR President, Sir Graham Watson, South West England MEP and former ALDE leader,who set out his vision of where ELDR should be heading — very much onwards and upwards.


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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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Building a Liberal Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 9th November, 2010

When direct elections to the European Parliament were first introduced in 1979, not a single British Liberal was returned, as the first-past-the-post electoral system was still in place and Liberal support was too concentrated in pockets. But Graham Watson and Robin Teverson defied sceptics by winning two Euro-seats in the West Country in 1994, and with the introduction of the (fiendishly complex) d’Hondt method of proportional representation in 1999, the Liberal Democrat tally shot up to 10 (now 12). That has ensured not only that British Liberal Democrats have a strong voice in the European Parliament but also that they form the largest single national group within the European Liberal family. It was partly as a result of that that Graham Watson became leader of the third force in the Parliament, which he then set about ‘growing’, by wooing all sorts of parties and individuals (some more identifiably Liberal than others), until at its height, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), as the parliamentary group is called, had over 100 MEPs. This process did not occur without some concern, as Graham makes clear in his new book Building a Liberal Europe: The ALDE Project (John Harper, 20 pounds or 25 euros). Some of the core members of the European Liberal Democrat and Reformist Party (ELDR) around which ALDE coalesced had reservations about Graham’s strategy of ‘bigger is better’ and were incredulous when he embarked on his frankly unrealistic personal project to try to become President of the Parliament last year. Now no longer leader of ALDE (the former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt succeeded him), Graham has instead had time to compile this survey of how the Liberal Euro-parliamentary group developed and the various political issues that members of the group pursued, individually or collectively. Because these are so numerous, and readers’ interests will vary, some pages of the book will be of more interest than others. Most of the British LibDem MEPs get a name-check at least and one is left in no doubt about how wide the author’s network both within and beyond the ALDE group has been. It’s a pity, though, that with the notable exception of a striking vignette of Nicolas Sarkozy in the Elysee Palace and to a lesser extent Silvio Berlusconi, most characters in the book fail to come alive. Graham himself comes across as rather cold and calculating (for example, describing the way he wined and dined ‘expensively’ in Brussels his colleagues, in order to try to win their support), though as I know from more than 30 years of friendship with him, that is not a fair self-portrayal. For better or for worse, he is no Peter Mandelson either. While academics and Liberal Euro-enthusiasts such as me will find lots of interest in Building a Liberal Europe, those avid for gossip will be disappointed.

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ALDE’s New Euro-parliamentary Leader

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 3rd July, 2009

Guy Verhofstadt 2The ALDE (Liberal) Group in the new European Parliament has chosen the Flemish Liberal and former Prime Minister of Belgium, Guy Verhofstadt, to be its new leader. He takes over from the British (South West England) Liberal Democrat MEP Graham Watson, who has meanwhile thrown his hat into the ring to try to be the new President of the parliament. Under Graham’s stewardship, ALDE grew to just over 100 members within the previous, larger, parliament. The British were the biggest national contingent in ALDE then, but they were overtaken by the Germans this time as a result of the FDP’s impressive surge in last month’s elections. As the Germans seem to be getting the leadership of the other major party groupings in the European Parliament, however, it is probably as well that they didn’t get handed ALDE as well.

Besides, Guy Verhofstadt is a sizeable and experienced political figure in his own right, even if his last attempts at forming a government in Belgium came to naught. In the 1980s, when he was a very young star in the Flemish political firmament, he became known as ‘Baby Thatcher’ for his economic liberalism, but he has softened since then, reportedly under the influence of his brother Dirk, who is a social liberal political philosopher. Guy Verhofstadt has spoken at Liberal Democrat Conference in the UK and even if he probably still would not figure in most Brits’ list of Ten Famous Belgians, his new role will undoubtedly raise his profile more even in this blinkered island nation. His commitment to the European project is without doubt. Following his election as ALDE group leader, he declared, ‘Europe is not the problem but the solution to the problems we are facing at the moment. We need more, not less Europe.’


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