Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Romania’

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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Welcome Migrants from Romania and Bulgaria

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th January, 2014

migrant workers 1I guess many people go into politics out of a sense of frustration; I know that’s true in my case, in particular frustration that the debate about Europe in the UK is so skewed by the ignorant and at times malicious content of rags such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express and, more recently, the unrestrained rants of UKIP and the Tory right. That sense of frustration has been heightened further recently by the disgraceful prejudice that has been whipped up in this country against EU migrants from Romania and Bulgaria by those same culprits. Nigel Farage — who is a  dangerous political menace behind his jolly man-in-the-pub facade — famously warned that 29 million such migrants were eligible to come to Britain (and other EU member states, of course) from 1 January. In fact, according to statistics provided by the Romanian Embassy, in consultation with the UK Border Agency, precisely 24 Romanians have arrived in the UK this month to date. Not a flood, not even a trickle. Moreover, the stigmatisation of Romanians in particular in the popular right-wing Press, as if all are those minority of Roma who beg and sleep out at Marble Arch, has helped lead to unpleasant acts of discrimination and voiced hostility to Romanians working here, the vast majority of whom contribute to British society, and I don’t mean just by paying their taxes. They work in a whole range of jobs from dentists to nurses, fruit pickers to waiters, in some cases doing jobs that indigenous Brits don;t want to do. So the next time you meet a migrant worker from Romania — or from Bulgaria — remember that it is highly likely that they have borne the brunt of prejudice that has been orchestrated against them, so please smile and make them feel welcome.

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Why EU Freedom of Movement Matters

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 16th January, 2014

freedom of movementEarly this morning I was interviewed on Voice of Africa radio countering some of the negative propaganda in Britain about migration from other European Union member states, notably from Bulgaria and Romania. On 1 January, the temporary restrictions on the free movement of labour from those two countries were lifted and there were scare stories in the more sensationalist newspapers — including the Daily Mail and the Daily Express — warning that Britain risked being flooded. UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, stoked fears by declaring that 29 million migrants would have the right to come. Disgracefully, some Conservative politicians have also jumped on the anti-migrant bandwagon, pandering to the worst sort of xenophobic impulses. In fact, in the first fortnight of 2014 only a handful of migrants from Bulgaria and Romania have arrived on these shores, and most of those already had jobs lined up. Conservative Ministers have hinted darkly that the principle of free movement within the EU should be over-turned, even though this is one of the greatest achievements of the European single market, which benefits British workers, retirees, students and others just as much as it benefits people coming here to make a new life. Any unilateral action by Britain would be illegal under current EU laws and invite retaliation, and it could potentially jeopardise the status of UK citizens abroad. There are a million Brits living in Spain alone. Moreover, as I told Voice of Africa listeners, the impression given by the popular press that EU migrants are milking the UK’s benefits system is a distortion of the reality. Only 3% of EU migrants claim benefits such as job seeker’s allowance and as a whole they pay far more into the system than they take out. It is reasonable that there should be a period before such benefits can be claimed by new arrivals, perhaps three months — but certainly not two years, as some politicians on the right have argued. Just as Britain benefits from EU membership, in areas such as jobs, environmental protection and security, so the country gains from freedom of movement and Liberal Democrats should not shy away from championing it.

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Romania’s National Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd December, 2013

Romania EUAmbassador Ion JingaBeing Romanian Ambassador to the Court of St James’s cannot have been easy in recent months, as the dreadful Daily Mail and even viler Daily Express have whipped up anti-Romanian feeling, cheered on by Nigel Farage and his UKIP nuts, as well as some Conservatives who ought to know better. However, H.E. Ion Jinga (who has been en poste for five years now) has handled the situation with dignity. This evening, during his customary short speech at the Romania National Day reception at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgravia he lamented the fact that the debate about freedom of movement in the European Union has got so skewed and pointed out that most Romanians here are working and of course paying taxes and national insurance. Indeed, all recent reputable surveys show that the nationals of other EU member states working here contribute far more to the UK economy than some of their compatriots receive in benefits. The Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Romania Lord (Quentin) Davies of Stamford lambasted the media scaremongering about migration and it was pointed out that that before the First World War, people could move around Europe freely, but it has taken us nearly a century to get back to that situation. It would be a seriously retrograde step to go back on that progress now. And as Ambassador Jinga mentioned, there are one-and-a-half million Brits enjoying freedom of movement by living and in many cases working in other EU member states. But no country’s media vilifies them. Of course there must be adequate provision to deal with aggressive beggars, criminals and “benefit tourists”. But the vast majority of Romanians (and Bulgarians) in this country do not fit into that category nor will most of those who come later to work.

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Facing up to UKIP

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 4th May, 2013

Nigel Farage 2The strong showing by the United Kingdom Independence Party in this week’s county council elections and recent parliamentary by-elections has been causing shudders in Britain’s other political parties and strengthens the hand of right-wing Conservative MPs who have been urging David Cameron to drift towards the UKIP agenda in an effort to stop the haemorrhage of traditional Tory voters. I trust we will not hear any such nonsense from Liberal Democrat parliamentarians. Even though sizable numbers of traditional LibDem voters also probably opted for UKIP this time I believe that was mainly as a form of protest. All three main political parties are suffering from voter disaffection and in particular the LibDems, as unfortunately many people in the UK don’t understand Coalition politics and the fact that as a junior partner in government the Liberal Democrats have only a certain degree of clout. But the really important thing, I believe, is that the Liberal Democrats must be bold enough to confront UKIP’s two main policy planks — anti-immigration and anti-EU — and tackle them head-on. I deliberately put immigration first, despite the fact that withdrawal from the EU is UKIP’s most well-known USP, as I believe the scare-mongering by UKIP regarding immigrants was more effective in garnering votes for the party than Nigel Farage’s attempts to ridicule Brussels. Opinion polls consistently show that for the vast majority of British voters Europe is way down their list of political priorities. But Farage and his colleagues have been steering the anti-immigrant bandwagon in a way that used to be more the role of the BNP and National Front. Farage’s repeated warning about the UK “opening its doors” to 29 million Bulgarians and Romanians from 1 January not only ignore such realities as the fact that the more favoured destinations of Romanians who do want to emigrate are Italy and France, and for many Bulgarians Germany is seen as more desirable because of low housing costs and a growing economy but also propagate the distinctly racist implication that all Romanians — and particularly Roma — are criminals. The LibDems — who currently have a working group looking at immigration and related issues — need to stress how much the British economy has benefited from immigration (which of course has to be controlled but not in an arbitrary fashion). Moreover, with regard to the EU the Liberal Democrats need to be brave enough to stand up and proclaim why leaving the EU would be disastrous for Britain. Certainly some reforms of the EU are needed, but you do not reform an organisation by leaving it. The European debate has been hijacked by UKIP and it is urgent that the alternative case is put strongly — by the LibDems.

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Montenegro’s EU Aspirations

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th January, 2013

Montenegro flagAleksandar Andrija PejovicWhen the former Yugoslavia broke up in the early 1990s,  the immediate concern of the new states created was to secure their boundaries and to establish the apparatus of a national government. But most also dreamed of the day when they could complete the transition from Communist province to full member state of the European Union. Slovenia — which has always thought of itself as being in central Europe rather than the western Balkans — was the first to achieve that goal, in 2004; Croatia will follow suit this year. But the next is likely to be tiny Montenegro, which only declared independence (from a rump Yugoslavia made up mainly of Serbia) in 2006. Last night, the tiny republic’s chief negotiator for Montenegro’s accession to the EU, Aleksandar Andrija Pejovic, joined London Tory MEP Charles Tannock — who is the relevant rapporteur in the European Parliament — at Europe House to give a presentation on Montenegro’s progress. The government has managed to put together an impressive array of committees and structures in Podgorica to manage the adjustment of Montenegro’s laws and practices to fit in with the EU’s massive acquis communautaire. Interestingly, a sizeable majority of the key people in that process are women. Moreover, local NGOs have been integrated into the deliberations, which is a first. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that Montenegro will complete the accession process before the end of the decade. This is partly because the EU is going through a difficult time at present but also because there is general recognition that Romania and Bulgaria were unwisely fast-tracked into membership in 2007 before they had sorted out some serious deficiencies. As Charles Tannock warned, Montenegro also needs to tackle some issues around corruption and organised crime. But it should become the 29th EU member state one day — or the 30th, if Iceland gets its act together and races past on the inside track.

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Remembering Ivor Porter

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 18th December, 2012

Ivor PorterMarilena Lica-MasalaI first met Ivor Porter, the British diplomat, writer and sometimes Special Operations operative, shortly after he had served as Ambassador to Senegal, at a time when I was Honorary Consul for the Islamic Republic of Mauritania to the Court of St. James’s, though the fact that we were both Liberal Democrats (as we call ourselves these days) tightened the bond. Ivor died earlier this year at the grand old age of 99 and this evening, at the Romanian Cultural Centre in Belgrave Square, a trilingual publication of tributes and his last interview — with Romanian scribe Marilena Lica-Masala — was launched in the company of his widow Katerina, various other family members, Romanian Ambassador Ion Jinga, numerous other Romanians and a good group of Kensington and Chelsea LibDems. Ivor first went to Bucarest as a lecturer at the university in 1939, but after a few months, as the Second World War took hold, he was absorbed into the British Legation, in the cypher department. He was at that time approached by the Special Operations Executive (SOE — a branch of the secret service that supported the resistance in occupied countries) before being returned to the UK in 1941, only to be parachuted back in with two intelligence colleagues in 1943. Unfortunately, they were captured, though their “imprisonment” was hardly uncomfortable, as they were held in a villa to which champagne and cavair were regularly delivered. After British planes bombed the city, Ivor’s Romanian “hosts” replaced the champagne with local firewater. The full account of his wartime exploits can be found in his entertaining memoir, Operation Autonomous. Later he would return to the country as UK Ambassador and he wrote a biography of King Michael, who had the surely unique distinction of carrying out a coup d’état against his own country’s pro-German dictatorship. Slight of build and diffidently erudite, Ivor — who liked to think of himself as training to be a Renaissance man — brought light into many people’s lives and it is good to have another slim volume to keep his memory bright.

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AEJ Congress 2011 Bucharest

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 13th November, 2011

The location inevitably influences the content and atmosphere of any international professional or political gathering and such was certainly true over this long weekend at the 2011 Congress of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) in Bucharest. The affiliated local organisation is the Romanian Association of Independent Journalists (who hosted us delightfully) and the significance of that word ‘independent’ is obvious a mere 22 yeas since the downfall of the Ceaucescu Communist dictatorship. Just how awful that was — not least in human rights terms — was brought home to us participants in the final working session yesterday, when we were shown a film about the memorial established in the former political prison where pre-Communist political leaders, bishops, priests and other ‘undesirables’ were kept in inhumane conditions, tortured and in many cases assassinated, their bodies being disposed of in unmarked graves in the middle of the night. The Securitate, Communist Romania’s equivalent of the Stasi and KGB, monitored and harassed and intimidated journalists, writers and artists, becoming particularly paranoid about anti-regime sentiments in that regime’s final year of 1989. But the new Romania has its challennges for journalists, too — not so much pressure from the government (though that can occur, as elsewhere) but in particular from various oligarchs who own huge slices of the TV market, which is especially important in a country where most people still get their news from evening TV bulletins. We were reminded that a similar situation exists in Ukraine, from which we heard some thought-provoking testimony, as well as from Moldova, Belarus (probably the worst) and Turkey (where 66 journalists are currently in prison, and many others are the subject of legal proceedings). In Britain and so much of the EU people take a free Press for granted, but we don’t know how lucky we are. And of course, Britain doesn’t exactly have an unblemished record itself, given the recent phone hacking scandals, the (now threatened) influence of Rupert Murdoch & Co and the corrosive legacy of Downing Street spin, crafted so devilishly under Tony Blair’s watch. A Congress such as this weekend’s Bucharest event underlines how important it is to have such an interchange of experiences and analyses, not just as an act of solidarity (important though that is) but also to show how responsible journalism can contribute positively to the European project and Europe-wide high standards of human rights and freedom of expression, which was after all the main reason for the AEJ’s foundation.


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Teodor Baconschi and Media Responsibility

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th November, 2011

The Romanian Foreign Minister, Teodor Baconschi, gave the keynote address at this morning’s Bucharest AEJ Congress session on ‘Freedom and Responsibility in the Mass Media’, though his remarks were so brief that they served more as a starting point for discussion. He said that after the fall of Communism in Romania there was a great concentration on trivia in the media, and he urged journalists to avoid creating pessimism or panic. ‘More freedom entails more accountability,’ he declared,which raised some eyebrows in the conference hall. It is not just that some journals and journalists are close to particular politicians or parties; more significant is the influence of certain big businessmen and vested interests. There is a lot of corruption in the Press, we were told, ‘because of the dark side of business.’ In some cases, journalists are not seen as free spirits but as mercenaires. Interestingly, the Minister revealed that he no longer watches television, not just because he is so busy but because he feels he will not get good access to news and commentary there. In that, of course, he resembles some of the younger generation who have abandoned ‘old media’ for the Internet and social networks — both very powerful, but also to be treated with even greater caution, I would argue. And both are often without the necessary level of responsibility or critical engagement.

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A Day at the Car Factory

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 11th November, 2011

In the bad old Communist days, a visit to a showpiece factory was de rigeur part of any Western journalist’s visit to Eastern Europe, so I was amused that the highlight of the first day of the AEJ’s Congress in Bucharest today was a trip to the Dacia car production plant, about two hours’ drive out of the capital. This entailed a 6.30am start but of course the visit was not quite what it would have been in the old days. The French firm Renault took over Dacia in 1999 and has since totally streamlined its output. Last year, almost 350,000 vehicules were produced at the industrial site I visited, 90% of which last year went for export, the cheapest, perfectly acceptable four-door little car selling for around 4,000 euros, or ten times the average monthly wage in this country. Dacia pays its own workers about twice that norm and interestingly around 30% of its workers are female. Visitors are driven round the huge complex in a little toy train of the sort that ferries holiday-makers round British seaside resorts, but this jaunt was followed by a slap-up buffet lunch on-site (no alcohol, of course). Dacia is Romania’s main export earner and is determined to maintain that distinction. It’s true, I saw an awful lot of them when I was in Algiers two weeks ago!

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