Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘William Penn’

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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Speaking Truth to Power

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th August, 2008

    This morning I went to Meeting for Worship at Quaker House, Brussels, for the first time for several years. When I visit ‘the capital of Europe’ these days, it’s almost always during the working week, for meetings — and indeed I will be at the European Parliament for most of the coming week, to sit in on a Group Week of the ALDE (Liberal) Group and a seminar on religious fundamentalism. But I was glad I stuck on a weekend beforehand (even though I was thus unable to accept a TV slot back in London yesterday!) so I could catch up with some old friends and to see what has happened to the Quaker centre in whose creation I participated over 30 years ago.

In the 1970s a number of us who were members or attenders of the Religious Society of Friends (as the Quakers are formally known) and were working in Brussels developed a ‘concern’ to have an office in the Belgian capital, to monitor what was going on at the European Commission and other European institutions, as well as NATO (which also has its headquarters here), to report back to Friends worldwide and to lobby on issues on which we felt the Quakers had a particular message. This latter activity was called historically ‘speaking truth to power’, though unlike George Fox and William Penn, few Quakers today would use such language to describe it. This concern led to the creation of the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA), of which I was the first Secretary, and which still thrives today, working on a whole range of issues from conscientious objection to energy security and terrorism.

QCEA still has its base in Quaker House, a glorious building in the Square Ambiorix, just a stone’s throw from the European Commission. If I recall accurately, we bought it for sixty thousand pounds. I’ve no idea how much it is worth today (in London it would be several million pounds), but that is not the point. It is not the value of the historic building itself but the value of the work done inside that counts. Having been absent for so long, it was great to be back.


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