Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Spain’

ALDE Congress in Madrid

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 10th November, 2018

DD89ADA8-523D-4525-8A5D-316420AD1B73For the latter half of this week I have been in Madrid for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Congress. Our hosts were Cuidadanos, the still relatively new kid on the block in Spanish politics, yet according to an opinion poll published today, they are level-pegging with the conservative Partido Popular (PP), on 22%. Only a fortnight ago, ALDE had to hold an emergency Council meeting in Brussels, to refuse membership to a Catalan party, PdeCAT, for reasons too complicated to go into here, but surprisingly there was no fallout from that at the Congress. This was mainly because the central focus of the Madrid gathering was the ALDE manifesto* for next May’s European elections, which was duly passed this lunchtime. But there was a plethora of other issues discussed over the three days of the Congress. I successfully moved, on behalf of the UK Liberal Democrats, an emergency motion on Saudi Arabia, which I will post on this blog on Monday, when I shall return to London and have access to a desktop computer.

9291698F-7F08-4996-8D94-E3006FA5A636There were fringe sessions on various aspects of campaigning, including social media, and it was good to have one panel that brought together not only MEPs from several EU member states but also senior executives from Facebook, Google and Microsoft. The UK Liberal Democrat Leader, Sir Vince Cable,  came over for the day yesterday, to reinforce the message that Brexit is not a “done deal” and that the LibDems are at the forefront of the campaign for a People’s Vote on any Brexit deal, with an option to remain. The resignation of Orpington MP Jo Johnson from his junior ministerial position over this very issue could not have been better timed. For the first time, the LibDems, Fianna Fáil from Ireland and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland worked as a coherent bloc in the Congress, which should be a good model to follow in future. Brexit, of course, hung like a big black cloud over the whole event, but at least we Brits left our continental colleagues in no doubt that we are doing everything we can to encourage the British people to stop it,

*The manifesto can be found on the ALDE website: https://alde.eu

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The Spirit of Córdoba

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th November, 2018

5061EB38-2936-4119-B8B3-99CCCC4F7ADDHaving so often cited the Umayyad emirate (later caliphate) of Córdoba in my Humanities lectures at SOAS, as an historic example of religious tolerance and the promotion of an independent spirit of enquiry, it is perhaps surprising that I had never been to this Andalusian city myself until last night. Of course, I am 1200 years too late to see the place in its full glory, when it was a centre of civilisation and learning to rival Damascus, populated by Muslims, Christians and Jews, and was probably the biggest human settlement in Europe. But there are still many vestiges of that golden era, not least the pillars and arches of the city’s main mosque, now incorporated into the Roman Catholic cathedral’s precinct. Many of the courtyards in the old town are reminiscent of the casbahs of North Africa and I was intrigued by how many Moroccan visitors I noticed as I walked round the city today. There are remnants of an even older, Roman, town, not least the splendid (albeit heavily remodelled) bridge that spans the Guadalquivir river. But it was the civilisation established after the Moors took control in 711AD that still resonates in world history. Perhaps inevitably, after a couple of centuries, the rot set in. Books were burned, as Islamic religious puritans got the upper hand. Then in 1236 the city fell to a Christian king’s armies. Subsequently both the Muslims and the Jews were expelled and one of the most repressive, totalitarian forms of Christian orthodoxy was imposed through the Spanish Inquisition.

BABF9765-ABDC-42D4-956C-02EC92A4B394A degree of mutual respect between the three Abrahamic religions was found in various parts of the Ottoman Empore at different times, but nothing quite like the spirit of Córdoba. With hindsight we can maybe wonder whether it would not have been possible to create such a society in an independent Palestine after the First World War, but Britain (as the mandated power for the area) got no further than supporting the concept of Jerusalem as an international city, where Muslims, Christians and Jews would live as brothers, and even that notion was swept aside by the surge of Zionism and the creation of the modern state of Israel. However, we live in an interconnected, postmodern world in which boundaries are traversed and the Internet allows us to create transnational communities of interest. Interestingly. in 2005, as fears were expressed about polarisation between Islamic and Western civilisations, the then Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Spanish counterpart, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, launched the “Alliance of Civilizations”. The initiative was based on the idea that all societies are interdependent, regarding development, security, welfare and environment, and that therefore a common political will should be established in order to overcome prejudice, misperceptions and polarisation. This move was endorsed by the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, turning the Alliance into a UN programme, the UNAOC. Progress has not exactly been linear since then, but there are a number of significant efforts to revive the Spirit of Córdoba, and to help it thrive, at the national level, including an independent research and public relations organisation in the UK, the Cordoba Foundation: https://www.thecordobafoundation.com

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Guernica 80 Years On

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 26th April, 2017

GuernicaEighty years ago today, German planes bombed the Basque town of Guernica in support of General Franco’s fascist forces in the Spanish civil war. For the Nazis, it was an experiment: to see if Blitzkrieg would work. And it did, incinerating not only the buildings but a sizable part of the defenceless population in a firestorm. It would be another two years before the start of the Second World War (which Spain basically sat out), but the Guernica atrocity served as a warning to Europe of what was to come. Hitler’s Germany would eventually be defeated, after killing directly or indirectly many millions of people, including the six million Jews as well as other minorities who perished in the Holocaust. But fascism itself was not defeated; in continued in Spain until Franco’s death in the mid-1970s, in Portugal and for a while in Greece. The restoration of functioning democracy enabled these southern European states integrate into what has become the European Union, but military dictatorships continued to flourish in Central and South America and parts of Africa. Most of those countries are now also multi-party democracies. But one should not be lulled into a false sense of security that the monster of fascism has been slain. It is like a virus that can lie undetected for years before taking hold of the body politic once more. The rise of nationalism in many parts of Europe is an unnerving warning that people can be talked into supporting demagogues, even when they are spouting lies. Hungary is particularly worrying, but it is not alone. And just as the Nazis scapegoated Jews for the economic ills of the Weimar Republic so now populist politicians on both sides of the English Channel are blaming refugees, Muslims and sometimes foreigners in general for their societies’ shortcomings. Decent people need to speak out about this. And as we commemorate the horrors of Guernica we should remember that it is not just a lesson from the past but a warning about a possible future.

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No Room for Jingoism

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 3rd April, 2017

Michael HowardJust four days after Article 50 was triggered by the Prime Minister, a former leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard, has declared cheerfully that Mrs May would be prepared to go to war to keep Gibraltar British, just as Margaret Thatcher did over the Falklands. It is hard to imagine a more provocative and inane statement at a time when the British government is preparing to enter negotiations with our current 27 EU partners to leave the European Union. In last year’s EU Referendum, the people of Gibraltar voted almost unanimously for the UK to stay in the Union, as they realise that their position is more secure vis-a-vis Spain that way. Leaving the EU will put them once more into a vulnerable position which could see them being blockaded by Spain as the frontier with Spain will become an EU external border. As if that were not bad enough, threatening possible military action over Gibraltar is a red rag to a bull to the fiercely proud Spanish. Moreover, it gives the impression that Britain has learnt nothing from its four decades of EU membership and how the EU has helped resolve contentious issues peacefully on a continent previously torn asunder by wars.

Theresa May 5What makes Lord Howard’s inept intervention even more serious, however, is that leading Conservatives, cheered on by UKIP and the Brexit Press, have been adopting an increasingly jingoistic tone more characteristic of the 19th century than of the 21st. There have been calls to efface every trace of the EU in Britain, including going back to old-fashioned blue UK passports. There have even been demands in some quarters to return to imperial measures, even though metrification pre-dated our entry into the EU. Foreigners are meanwhile increasingly coming under verbal and even physical attack from the more extreme elements in British society. No wonder thousands of EU nationals have already started leaving the country, even though Britain will remain a member of the EU for another two years. Far from standing up to this wave of unpleasant nationalism and jingoism, Theresa May is riding it, championing her red, white and blue Brexit and hammering on about Britain being different. She is increasingly delusional and dangerous, frankly, and if she and her Tory colleagues carry on in this belligerent and bigoted fashion she will alienate our closest friends, the other EU nations, and ensure that Brexit is an unmitigated disaster.

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Growing the European Liberal Family

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 5th June, 2016

image.jpegAt the ALDE (European Liberals and Democrats) Party Council in Vilnius this weekend, new full member parties were welcomed from Spain, Poland and Ukraine. The first two were particularly significant, as we did not have a national Spanish member party, only the (very strong and active) Catalan regional party, Convergencia. Last year, I was one of a number of European Liberal Democrats who went to Madrid for a day-long event with Cuidadanos, to check them out. Although new, they have already performed quite strongly in elections, and are undoubtedly a liberal, centrist force. Paradoxically, several key figures in the party are Catalan, and have therefore found themselves on the opposite side of the regional independence argument from Convergencia, but that will not stop the two working side-by-side within ALDE. As for the new Polish party, Nowoczesna, it is relatively small but is bravely standing up against the forces of illiberalism in Poland, where the government has even attracted formal EU concern. As the next ALDE Congress will be held in Warsaw at the beginning of December, one hopes this will give our new member a significant boost. The Ukrainian newbie, Civic Position, is also quite small but is a welcome liberal addition to that conflict-ridden state’s political landscape. ALDE has member parties right across Europe, not just in the EU, though Brussels-centred activities are a core area of operation. Being part of ALDE can help liberal parties outside the EU to feel part of a wider family, and indeed to receive practical assistance in some cases. Of course, in less than a month Britain could be starting its own bumpy journey out of the EU into the periphery, though the call from all the Continental and Irish delegates at the ALDE Party Cluncil was clear: “Please don’t leave!”

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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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300 Years of the Treaty of Utrecht

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th October, 2013

Gibraltar and War of Spanish SuccessionAmbassador Federico Trillo-FigueroaGiven the recent stand-off between Spain and Gibraltar, in principle over an artificial reef dropped in the sea by the Gibraltarians, it was daring of the Spanish Embassy in London to host a two-day seminar on the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht, which, among other things, ceded the Rock to the British in perpetuity. Grabbing the bull by the horns, one might say. Ambassador Federico Trillo-Figueroa attended throughout, as academics from Spain, the UK and elsewhere delivered a series of papers, some strictly historical, others more political, before an audience that notably included a couple from the Argentinian Embassy, doubtless looking for parallels with the Falklands/Malvinas. As a journalist, I was invited only for the Ambassador’s closing speech, which was in effect a summary of what had been said over the previous 36 hours, followed by a light buffet lunch of appropriately delicious Spanish food and wine. The papers of the seminar will ultimately be published, but even without them it was an intriguing affair — and prompted me to read the Treaty of Utrecht for the first time (thoughtfully provided in both language versions). That document is a remarkable reflection of the different map of Europe 300 years ago, as well as a record of the transfers and concessions that followed the War of the Spanish Succession.

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Standing up for Gibraltar

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 20th August, 2013

GibraltarGibraltar demo 1This evening I’ll be on a live current affairs programme on the English language service of the Iranian broadcaster PressTV, defending the British position on Gibraltar. By coincidence I sailed past Gibraltar last Wednesday (and got some very friendly waves from Spanish fishermen as they came up close, maybe partly because we were flying a Maltese flag, the ship being registered in Valetta). Anyway,  I have been to the Rock on a number of occasions, including an Executive of Liberal International some years ago, when Liberal Democrats from around the world were able to get an insight into this odd little place, with a population of under 30,000. That population is very mixed; a sizable minority has Spanish origins and some British, but many hark back to Malta, Morocco, Portugal and other places in the Western Mediterranean region. The territory is British, having been ceded in perpetuity by the Treaty of Utrecht, 300 years ago, but it is self-governing. Moreover, as regular intervals the Gibraltarians have been asked in a referendum whether they wish to join Spain or stay British, and the answer each time has been a resounding “British!”. There have often been spats between London and Madrid over the status of Gibraltar. General Franco, the dictator who ousted the Republican government in Spain in the late 1930s, actually closed the border to the colony in 1969. And at various times Spain has imposed restrictions on traffic. That’s what is happening at the moment, with some vehicles taking three hours or more to get across. Moreover, the Spanish have threatened to impose a €50 fee for entry into Spain from Gibraltar, which would be in complete contravention of the principle of free movement within the European single market. The official cause of the current dispute is the construction of an artificial reef off the shore of Gibraltar, which Spanish fishermen say will harm the environment and fish stocks, claims the Gibraltarians refute. But the matter has now been handed over to the European Commission to examine the claims and counter-claims. As Britain and Spain are both members of the EU (and Gibraltarians vote in European elections as part of the South West England constituency) this is the sensible way forward. The Commission President, José Manuel Barroso is Portuguese, so ideal as a peacebroker. But there will doubtless be much posturing by both sides until the matter is resolved.

Link to the PressTV debate: http://www.google.com/url?q=http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/08/21/319752/gibraltar-reef-rift-deflects-to-sovereignty/&ct=ga&cd=MTAwMDgzMDgxNDAzNTY0MDM0MjE&cad=CAEYAA&usg=AFQjCNEvluErVkKpwOKpitFhMlKz4kiswQ

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Bilbao and Postmodern Regeneration

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 13th August, 2013

Guggenheim Museum BilbaoBilbao was the centre of Spain’s industrial revolution, making fortunes for factory owners and other members of the elite and drawing in workers from the impoverished south of the country. True to the old Yorkshire saying, “where there’s much there’s brass”, the city developed into a glaring mix of luxurious homes of the minority, filthy factories and docks polluting the area, and poor quality housing for the masses, though  there was an old centre that has stayed intact, its narrow streets now pedestrianised. But after the inevitable decline in much of the industrial heartland Bilbao took a bold leap forward by agreeing to host a branch of the Guggenheim Museum, in a dramatic building designed by Frank Gehry. Other cities, including Madrid, reportedly turned down that possibility, fearing it would be a white elephant. But Bilbao took the plunge and by welcoming the museum set in train a process of urban regeneration that has become a model for urban planners worldwide, as well as being a draw to tourists. Inside the museum — whose raison d’etre is contemporary art — has a permanent collection of familiar names, including Andy Warhol and Gilbert & George. The day I went it also hosted an excellent and often moving temporary exhibition or art works, photographs, filmclips and ephemera from France under German occupation. It was perfect after taking those in to walk along the promenade alongside the river before crossing a bridge into the old town.

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The Basque Country

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th July, 2013

The Basque CountryGuggenheim Museum BilbaoThe Basque Country is a land of mountains and valleys — and the sea. The early 16th century Basque navigator Juan Sebastián de Elcano accompanied the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan on his historic sail westwards in search of the East Indies, and unlike Magellan, he survived. The Basques are among the oldest, if not the very oldest, peoples of Europe and their language is unlike any other. Of course it was suppressed under General Franco and for decades Basque separatists — mainly in Spain, but with a few allies in the smaller Basque lands of France — have agitated for independence, sometimes violently. It was while Franco was in decline, in 1975, that the Irish writer and specialist on Spain, Paddy Woodworth, first set foot in Euskal Herria — the land of the Basques. But he became fascinated and over the next 30 years and more penetrated the Basque lands and mentality more than most foreign observers. One result is his book The Basque Country (Signal, 2007), which is far more than just a guidebook or even a cultural history. It is a song of one man’s love for a tiny corner of Europe that has been often misunderstood. Paddy is a canny and opinionated (in the best sense of the world) companion, who relishes the Basque love of food and drink (wine and cider), the echoes of pre-Christian rituals and beliefs and the magic realism of some of its literature and folklore. He bemoans the noisiness of post-modern life in village bars, while at the same time — in a major, central chapter — celebrating aspects of the post-modern transformation of Bilbao (the “Guggenheim Effect”). While decrying the carnage of ETA’s terror campaign, as well as the torture and killings of Basque activists by various Spanish regimes, he remains neutral in his position regarding Basque separatism, at the same time drawing some interesting comparisons with Northern Ireland. Above all, he invites the reader to celebrate an land and its people before they irrevocably change, just as the whales that used to swim off the coast have disappeared and many species of fish have been driven to the verge of extinction.

Link: http://www.paddywoodworth.com & http://www.signalbooks.co.uk

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